The bandits were gone; the valley still.
Alain Dubois stood in the road, his father’s ashes clutched in one hand. His thoughts chased each other around in his mind like hounds after a fox; foaming, feverish. Anger and shame, twisted and knotted until they were indistinguishable from each other. They ate at him, burned him.
The bandits had taken uncle Richard’s sword, along with their horses and what little personal possessions weren’t strewn along the road. The despicable Guidry cheated to gain the upper hand. Alain cursed their despicable lack of honor; it was the worst insult his hot brain could conjur.
On the name of his father Pierre, it wouldn’t happen again.
“Are you alright?” Michel asked from a few paces behind him. Anger echoed in his cousin’s voice, and for good reason.
“I am.” Alain said, turning. He was already formulating a plan–this betrayal would not stand. “They’ll have to stop to water their horses in the next few hours. By my estimate, if we run–”
A fist collided with his jaw. His vision vanished in a flash of white and a dull roar filled his ears. He spun around and nearly tripped over his own feet. Michel stood over him with hands clenched, anger drawn in every line in his face.
“You. Inestimable. Idiot.” His cousin said from between clenched teeth. “What did I tell you?”
“What are you talking about?” Alain retorted, straightening. He held up his hands. “Now look, I know you’re as angry at the bandits as I am, believe me, but–hold on there!”
He ducked another swing from his cousin, who was advancing with a snarl on his lips.
“I told you–I told you–that bastard next to the wagon was bad news. I told you he was a bandit. And what did you do?”
“Michel, your anger is misdirected.” Alain said, taking another step backwards. “You’re angry at the men who embarrassed us and stole our possessions.”
“No, I’m mad at you for convincing me to come on this harebrained adventure in the first place.” Michel said. “I’m mad at you–the utter fool who calls himself my cousin–for deliberately taking us through the middle of a mountain range that has been crawling with bandits for over seventy years. I’m mad, because I said, out loud, ‘Alain, this feels like a trap.’ But what did you do? Oh that’s right, what you always do–exactly what you wanted!” His cousin’s voice echoed through across the ravine.
Alain hesitated. He remembered the look on his cousin’s face when he had been held at gunpoint. His face when the bandit’s had begun throwing their personal possessions in the air. Anger. The same anger that Alain felt; only Michel’s was directed at him.
“You can’t possibly say that this was my fault? Was I the one who held us at musket? Was I the one who stole your father’s sword? Your father’s sword, Michel!”
“What’s a wolf do when a rabbit wanders heedlessly into his clutches? He eats it, Alain! We’re the rabbits, you oaf! We’re the ones who wandered through the middle of outlaw country–which, by the way, I said was a terrible idea–armed with nothing but a single sword!” He spun away from Alain, raising his face to howl in frustration at the trees.
“Where’s your sense of adventure? So what, we lose to one set of bandits and that’s it, curtains are closed? What about your father, eh? He went all the way to Spain in the wars. And he’s fine! We grew up on his stories!”
“My father went to Spain because he had to, you ass.” Michel said. “He didn’t do it for guts and glory–he did it because he couldn’t feed himself. He never wandered into the Massif to take on the entirety of the bandits inside by armed with nothing but a loud-mouthed cousin!”
“So you’re just going to let those bandits walk away?” Alain was feeling his own anger and frustration rise up in a hot wave. “You’re going to let them take our things, take your father’s sword, and get away?”
“Stop bringing up my father’s sword! Do you actually care that it’s been taken, or are you just using it as an excuse to continue with this already stupid plan? And also yes, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re going to go to that hunting village that bandit–”
“Guidry.” Alain interrupted. As long as he lived, he would never forget the man’s name.
“–whatever his name is, told us about, and we’re going to hitch a ride home. Do you understand? Mary, mother of God, what are we even doing out here?” He wheeled, gesturing to the teeth of the Massif in the distance. “Do you have any idea how many people have been denied burial in the church cemetery because they were behind on their tithes? What do you think happened to their souls, they just wander around giving people chills? Your own brother, for–”
Michel froze, his arms in mid-gesticulation. He turned slowly back to Alain, who had his fists up, just in case. His cousin’s eyes narrowed, and when he spoke his voice was low, suspicious.
“What are we really doing out here, Alain?”
“I already told you–” He began, but his cousin silenced him with a curt slash of his hand.
“Don’t feed me any slop about your father’s ashes. You and I both sat beside Remy’s pyre six years ago in that same olive grove, and you never said a word about his soul. Why now, Alain? Why Pierre, and not Remy?”
He dropped his fists, and stared at the shape of the box in his pocket. The last of his father, the giant. His father, who hated a lie in any shape, even one buried beneath a slew of truth. Was this how he was to honor the man who raised him, who had only died three days ago? He had lied to Michel, used him. At the very least, he deserved an explanation.
“I need a letter of recommendation.” Alain said. He hung his head, feeling the shame heat his cheeks.
“To get into the musketeers. I need a letter of recommendation from someone who personally knows the king. Otherwise…I’m just another poor son of a poor farmer with a foolish dream. I thought that if we managed to subdue a bandit, get them to tell us where they made camp…” He shrugged. “Wipe out the bandits of Vercours Massif, everyone pays attention, n’est pas?”
“You lied to me?” Michel still had his fists up. “You told me we were out here to bury your father in grandfather’s plot. You’ve been lying to me this whole time?”
“Would you really have come with me if you knew the truth?”
He didn’t know what he expected from his cousin. Commiseration, perhaps, or maybe at the worst, pity. He received neither.
“Of course I wouldn’t have come! I would have told you–like the reasonable, rational person I should have been–that there are perhaps a dozen other things you could do to secure a letter of recommendation that don’t involve risking your neck. Or mine, for that matter. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you! You lied to me!”
“I most certainly did not!” Alain interjected. “I brought father’s ashes, did I not? We really are on the road to Plan-de-Baix, are we not?”
Michel scowled. “So your lunacy involving the bandits was a coincidence?”
“Well, when you put it like that–”
“I take that as a compliment.”
“You shouldn’t.” The anger in Michel’s face manifested into a kind of exhaustion–that of an adult regarding an infant, who refuses to learn a lesson. He bent to begin picking up their clothes, still strewn along the road where the bandits had discarded them. Sensing an opportunity for reconciliation, Alain stooped to help.
While he hadn’t directly lied to Michel, Alain had to admit the possibility that he had deceived him. His father’s ashes had been a matter of well-timed convenience. A knot of shame rose in his throat; what kind of man was he, who would use his father’s death to his own purposes? He had intended to trap a bandit–perhaps his assumption that they roamed solitary had been ill-conceived–and discover their hideaway. From there…even he had to be honest, he didn’t exactly have a fully ironed-out plan. But what did that matter? Surely one would come to him; they always had in the past.
And what of Michel? Would he expect his cousin to blindly him along in his schemes forever? They weren’t children anymore, getting into schoolyard scraps with Gascon and his lackeys. There were stakes to this game. What if it had been Michel in that duel instead of him? What if his cousin had gotten hurt? Was he prepared to accept that possibility, just so he could play the part of musketeer?
“Pride is all a man has, boys.” His father had said. Alain lived his life by those words. But this went beyond that. There was pride, and there was arrogance. There was the knowledge of personal risk…and there was convincing someone else to take that risk for you. He had been a fool.
Michel folded his arms and waited, a single eyebrow twitching skywards. Alain took a deep breath, ate his pride, and continued.
“You’re right; I lied to you, and I was selfish.”
Michel was silent. He looked out over the ravine, where birds pinwheeled in the bright sunlight.
“Do you remember that harvest party at Farmer Jacques’, when we were seven? Sarah Michelles surprised you with a joke, and you laughed, and Gascon made fun of you for it? You kicked him in the shin and he tripped you into that puddle?”
Alain nodded, smiling at the memory. “You grabbed a shovel and hit him in the back of the head with it, and he ended up in the puddle beside me.”
“Through all the stupid antics you’ve pulled in the last ten or so years, I’ve been there. Through innumerable fights, pranks and poor judgements. I’ve been at your side. Through the whole thing with Remy and the wagon. Through your father.”
Grief gaped before him like an abyss. He nodded, unable to speak. Michel squeezed his shoulder, and continued.
“What I’m saying, cousin of mine, is that I’ve stood with you through it all. I’m not angry that we’re out in the spine of the Massif with nothing to eat and no horses. I’m not angry that we got robbed by bandits–well, actually I am, but I’ll get over it. I’m angry that you lied to me about it. You didn’t ask me as you said, man to man, but as a child with a scheme. If you had asked, I would have been there, because I’ve always been there. I always will be.”
Alain cleared his throat. “Thank you.”
Michel held up a finger.
“But hear me now. Moving forward, we’re in this together. We’re a team. No gallivanting into danger assuming I’m right behind you. We make the decision together.”
“So what do you think we should do next? I think we should go after them.” Alain said, before Michel could open his mouth. “Like I said before you hit me, they’ll have to water the horses soon, and when they do–”
“You’ll what, pop out from behind a tree with a stick? Maybe scare them into surrender?” Michel said, folding his arms. “No. They defeated us before, and they’ll do it again. I say we retreat to that village yon bandit told us about. We can catch a ride maybe as far as Monastier-de-Clement and walk the rest of the way home.”
“Home?” Alain couldn’t believe his ears. “So that’s it? You want to turn tail and run? Admit defeat?”
“Alain what part of this feels like a victory to you?” Michel gestured widely to their lack of horses, supplies and food. To that, Alain did not have an answer.
“Yes, I want to go home. It’s going to be a long walk on top of what has already been a very long day, and you just agreed to listen to my advice less than fifteen seconds ago. So come along.”
“But what about–”
“If the next words out of your mouth are some combination of ‘your father’s sword’, I’m going to hit you again.” Michel said, stooping to hoist the leather bag over a shoulder. “The sword is gone, Alain. We’re just going to have to accept that, and the wrath of my father.”
“What if we can get it back?” Alain was grasping at straws now, and he knew it.
“Did you have something in mind?”
“Well…no.” Alain admitted. “But if I think of something, will you at least promise to hear me out with an open mind?”
His cousin sighed. “Fine. But for now, we walk.”
It was a long and frustrating day. By the time they saw the first curl of blue smoke hovering over the next ridge, they were tired and hungry.
The small village was tucked into a hollow, sunk between two hills. A muddy rivulet chewed it’s way through the center, surrounded on either side by squat wooden houses with thatched roofs, numbering perhaps two dozen. The single road, little more than twin beaten mud tracks ran through the tiny hamlet and ran out of the valley to the west. A single horse ate hay beside a barn, and two donkeys brayed out of sight. Beyond that, the only sign of life in the village was the puffs of smoke escaping from the crude clay chimneys.
It was, to Alain’s mind, the picture of the countryside. Small, dirty, and poor.
They knocked on a few doors, to no response. With each, Alain felt a growing sense of embarrassment turning his face red. He was playing the part of the beggar, disrupting the peace of people’s lives with his hands out. All for his error in judgement. His fault.
The fourth house they came to stood beside the river, just before the road turned over a ramshackle bridge that looked like a bold breeze would send it groaning into the water below. The house looked similarly dilapidated; the wooden beams were warped from years of rain and snow, the corners crooked and out of place. The missing pieces from its thatched roof exposed the beams and gave it a naked, neglected air. A failing crop of parsnips rotted gently beneath a bed of weeds. Just off to the side, Alain could see a handful of scrawny chickens pecking for nonexistent crumbs inside a coop. The house looked like it was slowly sinking into the banks of the river, eroding to nothing.
But there were also touches of care and attention; a cheerful collection of early-season daisies smiled from a box set beneath the single window; a handwoven gardeners hat was hung by a string on a peg near the door over a pair of rusted shears. The path leading to the door from the dirt tracks was paved with smooth stones, swept clean.
Michel knocked, and nearly swayed in relief when they heard a chair scrape against the floor on the other side. The door swung open, revealing a woman. Her grey hair still had faints hints of a youthful auburn, and was tucked messily beneath a tattered cap. She eyed Alain and Michel with a distinctly unfriendly expression.
“What do you want?”
“Bonjour madame.” Alain ducked his head, as he had been taught by his parents. “We are simple travellers on the road, swept by the wind and tide to appear at your humble doorstop in search of companionship and travel–”
The woman squinted at him, the corners of her mouth pulling into a frown.
“What do you want? Speak normally, boy, I haven’t the time for that drivel.”
“We were robbed and need a place to stay.” Michel said quickly, hushing Alain behind his shoulder. “We were hoping to beg a slice of bread and perhaps a roof for the night while we arrange travel back home.”
The woman’s frown deepened. Her narrowed eyes quickly found the leather bag hefted over Michel’s shoulder, took in the dirt on the boy’s shoes–there was something calculating in that gaze, like they were being measured. Two extra mouths to feed, with winter not near enough behind them. With each ticking second, Alain’s hopes fell.
“Walk on, boys. Try the house across the bridge and to the left there, with the yellow pennant. They take in strays. Bon chance.” Before Alain could blink, the door was closed. The yard was still, except for the clucking of chickens.
“What just happened?” Alain asked blinking at the closed door. He looked from Michel, to the door and the back to Michel. He ran a hand through his hair, confused. “What just happened? Does she understand what–did she even listen? I’m sure she didn’t. Let me try, Michel. We just need to explain it better. That’s all we need to do. She just didn’t understand.”
Michel swallowed a laugh.
“It’s fine, Alain. It’s a small place, I’m sure there are other houses.”
“No!” Alain said. “No, not at all. Beyond the basic rules of etiquette, human decency would be to give us a piece of bread. Isn’t that so?” He looked at Michel, a hot flush heating his cheeks. “Isn’t that so? We’re not asking for much–get out of the way, cousin, let me try.”
But before he could force himself past his cousin, the door swung open.
A rotund old man stood in the doorway, smiling beatifically at them. His grey hair stuck up from his scalp in bird-like tufts. He had a chicken tucked firmly under one elbow, clucking contentedly to itself. The old woman was nowhere to be seen. He appeared so suddenly Alain had to blink to ensure himself it wasn’t a hunger-produced apparition.
“Bonjour!” He exclaimed. “I apologize so for my wife’s cold welcome. We would be thrilled to offer you a place for the evening. Come, you must be hungry–we’re just about to eat. Come in, come in!”
He ushered a very confused Alain and Michel inside.
The inside of the house was the opposite of the exterior in almost every way; it was warmly decorated, clean and orderly. Two chairs with deer hides stood beside a brick-lined hearth. crackling fire. A cauldron of something that smelled divine bubbled over a crackling fire. Tucked into a corner was a small kitchen with bundles of dried herbs hanging from the beams.
The signs of poverty were everywhere; a salvaged shard of a broken mirror, propped above a shelf for use. A bowl of thread, thriftily saved from the rare parcel, over the mantel. The knife on the cutting block in the kitchen, worn nearly to it’s haft. Nothing thrown away, everything given purpose.
The woman was standing in the kitchen, picking herbs into a wooden bowl.
“No shoes.” She said without looking. Her tone was as unfriendly as her face had been when she first opened the door. “I don’t want you spreading mud throughout the house.”
“Thank you so much for your hospitality, milady.” Alain said, bending to untie his laces. “We would hate to cause you any distress.”
The ghost of whatever conversation was held between the man and woman still hung in the air; it was visible in the woman’s tightly-pressed lips, in the way she attacked the poor strands of thyme before her. Alain could feel the tension and unpleasantness radiating from her.
“Nonsense!” The old man chirped before the woman could open her mouth. “It’s no bother at all. I’m Renaud Rochelles, gentlemen.” He held out a hand, which Alain and Michel shook. He had a strong grip for someone his age–the grip of a farmer, someone who dug their livelihood from the ground. “This is my wife, the ever-so-lovely Madeleine.”
“Enchante, madame.” Alain called. The woman didn’t respond.
“And this little lady is Amsa!” Renaud said, hefting the chicken with a wide smile. “She’s a bit of a worrier, you see, and needs a personal touch every now and then. She gets bullied by the other chickens. Say hello, Amsa!”
The chicken eyed them and remained silent. Michel and Alain shared a look, unsure of how to proceed.
“Can I get you boys something to drink? We have milk, water mais bien sûr, and I think a little cider left–do we have any cider left, Madeleine?”
“We were saving it for a special occasion.” The woman said, glaring at her bowl. “But since you’re just going to do as you like regardless of my opinion, oui, we still have a few bottles in the root cellar.”
“We’ll have water.” Alain said quickly. Given the tone of Madeleine’s voice, he wouldn’t touch that cider if there was a gun held to his head. Renaud bobbed his head, apparently impervious to his wife’s frosty attitude, gesturing to the simple wood table.
“Won’t you sit? We’re eating in a few moments. I hope you like coq au vin.”
They sat, and Renaud set down two chipped enamel cups in front of them, grunting slightly as he settled his weight into a chair across from them, carrying Amsa the chicken the entire time. Once he was settled the bird clucked and settled into his lap and he ruffled its feathers fondly.
“So then boys. What happened in the Massif? It’s a dangerous part of land to be out in by itself–and you two look to be too smart not to know about the bandits.”
“You would think that, wouldn’t you?” Michel said. Alain cleared his throat and jumped in before his cousin could continue. He told Renaud of his quest to bury his father’s ashes, their encounter with Guidry and his band of bandits earlier that day. The old man tutted and shook his head in genuine sympathy.
“What cowards those men are, preying on boys such as yourself. And on such a noble quest, as well. Still, I’m glad they at least pointed you in our direction. I shudder to think how many people weren’t given such a courtesy and starved in those mountains. Or fell to their deaths.”
“Do you get many people like us coming to beg at your doorstep? Here, madame, allow me, please. ” Alain leapt to help Madeleine as she approached the table with bowls and napkins. She handed them over with a scowl.
Renaud stroked his cheek, frowning at the raw beams overhead. The holes in the thatch allowed a measure of light into the small room.
“It’s common enough. The bandits ply their trade with increasing indiscrimnence; we’ve fed everyone from farmers to wealthy merchants, and our neighbors have all done the same. I believe the Tennants across the way have a fur trader who was relieved of all his skins. Ah, which reminds me, boys–” The old man leaned his elbows on the table, interlacing his fingers. “There’s a shrine in the center of town dedicated to our lady the Virgin Mary. All the ones vanquished by the bandits of the Massif drop a coin in the waters for good luck.”
Michel frowned. “Doesn’t that seem a bit backwards? Asking those who were robbed to give what little they have left? No offence.” He added quickly. “We don’t want to seem ungrateful.”
Renaud waved his concern away with ease. “I know it might seem such, but at harvest we collect it all and give it to families in the area that maybe had a weak crop, or a streak of bad luck. It’s a small community, you see. Besides, it’s tradition–the village has been doing it for decades. We can always donate a penny or two if you’ve got nothing left.”
“No, no, we can easily manage.” Alain hastened to assure the older man. “The least we can do for your hospitality.”
“I imagine it can’t be easy living on the bandit’s doorstep.” Michel asked.
“Generally, they leave us to our own affairs.” Renaud said. Madeleine came behind him with a bowl of stew, setting it down in front of him hard enough to send it spattering onto the table, which he wiped up with utter calm.
“Thank you darling. The worst thing is being associated with them. The bandits own the Massif, you see, which makes us suspicious by dint of simple geography.”
He leaned forward, adopting a conspiratorial whisper.
“That’s what’s got my wife in such a state, you see. She’s not normally like this.”
“I can hear you, batard.” The older woman from the kitchen snapped, picking up two more bowls.
“What do you mean?” Alain asked, hurrying past the awkward tension. Madeleine set a bowl of stew in front of him. It smelled divine. “Merci, madame.”
Madeleine sat down before her own bowl, and the conversation died down as they ate. It was the best coq-au-vin either boy had ever had, and they praised both the dish and the lady who cooked it in equal measure between heaping spoonfuls. Their flattery seemed to thaw the edges around her severity, and she even went as far as to smile and say merci. Perhaps, Alain reflected as he savored a soft piece of garlic, the woman wasn’t so icy after all. After a while Renaud pushed his bowl away with a content sigh.
“Earlier today, a convoy came through–some noble or other with a few others, bound for a ride in the Massif, either too malinformed to know about the bandits or too arrogant to believe them an actual threat. Four men and a covered carriage, gilted and decorated! Why don’t they strap a trumpet to the roof and advertise themselves to the bandits? I tell you boys, I could find exactly where they’d be taken on a map!”
He hit the table with a palm, causing Amsa the chicken to cluck loudly in surprise. A rush of irritation flitted over his face.
Alain hid his embarrassed flush with his bowl. The nobles hadn’t been the only ones to underestimate the bandits of the Massif.
“One of their lackeys merely laughed when I suggested they take a different route, or perhaps turn back around. They did accept my offer to help mend their wheel, though, and gave us this in thanks.” He fished in his pocket for a moment, and tossed something on the table.
Alain nearly choked on the mouthful of soup he had taken, and Michel stared open-mouthed.
A family seal, gilded in gold and mounted on a blue silk ribbon, reflected the orange firelight in a burnished glow. A deer leaping over a shield, quartered with three chevrons. Madeleine stared at the seal with naked dislike.
“If we take that into the market in Vif and try to sell it…” Renaud sighed and shook his head. “We’d be arrested. On sight, likely, and the village condemned as being in the bandit’s pocket. A pair of poor farmers, in sudden possession of a noble crest?”
“It was a vile thing to give.” Madeleine said, her face twisted in contempt. “A barbed gift. Why didn’t you just ask for a coin, or something that we could use? You foolish–”
“I didn’t think about it at the time, dear, you know that. At least they were trying to help.”
“Trying, oui, as a fisherman helps a fish out of the water. Leave it to the nobility to hand out what they think is a gift–” She began to slap the table and berate her husband across the table, who simply sat through the barrage.
Alain, meanwhile, hadn’t blinked since the crest had clattered onto the table. A deer over chevrons. He knew that crest. Everyone east of the Massif knew that crest.
“Michel.” He croaked.
“I see it.” Michel said, awed.
“The duke of Lyon.” Alain said. Only direct blood-members of the house carried those seals, and gave them away only rarely, in times of great service. Alain began to think that perhaps monsieur Renaud had done more than mend a wheel.
“The duke of Lyon?” Renaud interrupted his wife. He picked the medallion up and gently touched the deer. “Interesting.”
“Who cares if it’s the duke of Lyon?” Madeleine raged, throwing her hands up in exasperation. Crimson roses bloomed high on her pinched cheeks. “It might as well be the duke of Burgundy! Why stop there? Why not the seal of the King himself! We’re starving, you blockhead! We barely have enough food to make it to the first harvest this spring, and you’re bringing in strays from the street to give what little food we have and–and–” She looked at the crest on the table, and Alain was amazed to see actual tears well up in her eyes.
“–and we have a fortune sitting in our pockets that we can’t sell for fear of being arrested, so we’re just going to die with a lump of gold in front of us–”
Her thin frame rocked with a sudden sob, and suddenly Renaud was at her side, his arms wrapped around her shoulders as she cried in huge, heaving waves.
“Hush, darling, hush.” He kissed her hair, rocking her. “It’ll be alright, don’t you worry. We can sell off one of the chickens, and maybe get enough to try a new crop of barley in the plot down by the river.”
Alain cleared his throat and looked away from this tender scene. His mind began to race with possibilities. A member of the noble house, gone into the Massif just this morning, under-prepared and in great danger if Renaud was to be believed.
“Michel, can I speak to you outside for a moment?” He leapt from his seat and hauled his cousin out the door before he could voice a word in agreement or protest.
“What?” Michel said, closing the door behind them. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Do you see what this means? This is a sign, Michel! This is how we do it!”
“How we do what, Alain?” Michel asked, narrowing his eyes. He leaned back against the house and folded his arms.
“How we get my letter of recommendation!” Alain could feel the excitement buzzing in his skull. It was all there, clear as day, each step laid out like dots on a map. “Don’t you see? A member of the royal house of Lyon, in danger in the Massif this very day. A member of a house hand selected by the King. I can’t believe this has happened, what a stroke of luck. All we have to do is ride into the Massif and save them. Mon Dieu, I only hope that no one else has helped them yet.”
“Yes, that would be terrible, wouldn’t it?” Michel said dryly. “And before you get your hopes up, there is no chance you and I are wandering back into the Massif just to make jackasses of ourselves–in front of a noble audience, no less! Besides, they could be anywhere within fifty miles of here.”
“Not true! Monsieur Renaud said he could point to where they would be on a map! And he’s been living here for God knows how long, I’m sure he knows the area by memory.”
Michel paused only for a second to consider this before waving it away.
“My doubt about that aside, I revert to my former argument; we have no plan. Not only do we have no plan, we have no equipment, nor any way to catch up to the convoy.” Michel ticked each point off his fingers.
“I’d lay fifty francs that old man could find half a dozen shortcuts through the Massif to catch up with them by dawn.”
“You don’t have fifty francs.”
“Well if I did they’d be safely returned to me!” Alain retorted. His fingers were fairly trembling with excitement now. The fur trapper. The wide-brimmed gardener’s hat on the wall beside Michel. The bottles of cider. It was all there.
“And you’re forgetting something.”
“I have a plan. Monsieur Renaud–”
“No. No, Alain! I don’t want to hear it.
“Michel.” Alain approached his cousin, holding his hands together, pleading. “Michel, this is it. This is the opportunity that boys like us dream of. This is the chance for us to alter our destiny. All it takes is a little risk. I’ve thought this one through, I promise. We’ll outwit the bandits this time–”
“A little risk?” Michel pushed himself off the wall. He looked at Alain like he was deranged.
“You’re proposing that we traipse through the Massif at night to catch up to a caravan of noses-in-the-air nobility with the hopes that we might be able to save them from getting robbed–with no horses, guns, or even so much as a dagger between us. Oh and lest we forget, to assault the same bandits who broke us like a pair of eggs not a day ago.”
Alain wanted to scream at his cousin. He was ignoring the obvious, the looming triumph that they only had to reach out and grasp. Saving a noble’s life…the opportunities that would open to them boggled his mind. And yet Michel was stubbornly refusing to see it.
“We head back to Roussard-en-Lac, Alain. That’s it.”
“So this is us making decisions together, is it?” Alain demanded. “You want to go home, so that’s all there is? What about what I want?”
“You want to get us killed!”
Alain didn’t mean to laugh, but the look of self-righteous exasperation on Michel’s face was too funny not to. Michel sighed and held out a hand.
“Give me the pennies in your pocket.”
“Why?” Alain asked, but the question was purely academic; he was already fishing around in his pocket.
“I’m going to that well Renaud told us about.”
“Why do you need my coins?”
“Because I’m going to pray to our Lady to give you some common sense in addition to my protection.”
Michel turned on his heel and marched stiff-necked towards the road that led to the center of town.
“Ha! Well if you’re doing that then I’m going with you to pray that She gives you a spine, too!” Alain dusted himself off and chased after his cousin.
The shrine was a simple affair, easily found in the town center. A roughly-hewn stone statue of a woman wearing robes stood on a column of stones over a ring of clear water. Perhaps two dozen coins were scattered through the water. The sun was just beginning to set over the trees to the east of the hamlet, and a single finger of dying light stroked the woman’s veiled face.
Alain caught up to his cousin standing in front of the small shrine, his lips moving silently as he prayed. Alain waited somewhat patiently for a moment or two, but his patience soon wavered.
“Hurry up. I want to get back to the house and hear more about this convoy.”
“Didn’t your mother ever teach you never to rush a man through his prayers?” Michel said without opening his eyes.
“Well she should have. Hush.” After another few moments he opened his eyes and tossed his two pennies in. “Your turn.”
Alain approached the shrine and looked at the statue. He reached for a quiet place of peace in his jumbled and tossing thoughts.
“Dear mother, please bless and guide us in our path as we walk to reach the light of you son. Amen.” He crossed himself, thought about it, and quickly added, “And if it’s not too much trouble please give my cousin Michel his courage back, he seems to have lost it.”
He threw his last remaining coin into the pool of water. It tumbled to rest atop two others with a small plop.
“Nice. Very mature.” Michel sniffed. Alain ignored his cousin and bent over the coins, enjoying the way the golden bar of light reflected off the dull metal.
“Michel, come and see these. Some of them are old–and not even French.” He pointed to a small silver coin that showed a man in robes holding a book. “See that? I’m pretty sure that one’s Italian. And that is German, I think.”
“How do you know?” Michel asked, bending over to take a look on the other side of the shrine. “You’ve been out of Roussard a handful of times. Suddenly you’re an expert in foreign currency?”
“I saw a book about coins when I went to the market with father a few years ago, I’ll have you know. It was interesting, actually. It had several pages, with coins from different countries secured in wire. I remember, there was even a gold florin from Italy father said was worth fifteen francs–” He looked up. Michel was staring at the water, fixated on a single point in the water. He wasn’t blinking.
“You’re not even listening to me. Rude.”
“I for one thought my story about the coin book was very interesting–”
“Alain, shut up. Come look at this.” All traces of play had evaporated from his cousin’s voice, and Alain shuffled over to his side of the ring.
Michel pointed to a pair of large silver coins. “Did your book say what those are?”
The two coins in question had gone green, and had discolored over time, which made their details difficult to make out.
“It’s a crest with two lions.” Alain said, squinting. “I think there’s also a castle of some kind, but I can’t make it out.”
“It’s the royal castle in Madrid.” Michel whispered, almost to himself.
“How do you know that?” Alain asked.
“Because there are three coins that look exactly like them sitting on the mantel, beneath my father’s sword. He brought them back from the wars.”
“But can you be sure?” Alain asked. He felt the beginning of excitement return, fluttering in his belly like a butterfly. “They could be from anyone–we don’t know they belonged to uncle Richard.”
Most of the blood was gone from his cousin’s face; his eyes burned like coals, fixated on the two coins. “He showed them to me once, when I was young. It was after christmas eve dinner–he had a little to drink–and he told me the story about the reward he received ten reals for doing a Spanish viceroy a service. He handed me the coins, Alain. I saw them, each an identical copy of these here.”
He turned to face Alain. The enormity of the truth carved into his face.
“My father was here, Alain. Right here. He threw these coins into this same shrine, which means…”
“Which means, he faced the same situation that we do.” Alain said. “He was defeated by the bandits of the Massif, was forced back to this village, probably begged for supper at the same door that we did, and most importantly stood in front of this exact shrine. He faced the same choice we do. And do you know what he did?”
It took every ounce of control that Alain had to keep his excitement out of his voice. He needed to be calm here, rational. He had to present the facts to Michel, and let him make his own decision. No more playing the role of the musketeer and his loyal squire. They were adults, now, and it was time for adult decisions.
“He chose to take that ride back home, to go back to farming, family…the life of a simple man, living a simple life. You know your father, just as I do. Have you ever seen him take a second slice of cake, even at christmas? Quarrel with anyone? And yet he stood here. The question that you have to ask yourself now is; do you want your father’s life? Do you want to work on that same olive grove, living comfortably in that same house? If the answer is yes, tell me and I promise you we will be on the next turnip-wagon bound for home. If you want that simple life for yourself, we head back to Roussard-en-Lac, and not another word about it from me.”
He reached out and squeezed his cousin’s shoulder tightly.
“But if you want to take that road less travelled, if you want to see what happens in life when you throw your chips into the center of the table…if you want to throw caution to the wind, you need to make a different choice. Might we lose horribly and, as a wise man once framed it, make jackasses of ourselves in front of one of the most powerful families in the area? Absolutely. Possibly get ourselves injured, or maybe killed. But you know what else we might do, Michel?”
His cousin looked at him and raised a single eyebrow in question.
Alain leaned forward. “We might be magnificent. Even fools from the country like you and me.”
He could see the conflict in Michel’s face. His cousin’s lips tightened, his brows drew together. He stared at the surface of the water like an easy answer would manifest itself.
Alain already knew what his decision was–the life of a musketeer held no room for caution–but he couldn’t make this choice for his cousin. The last time he had, it had been through deception and schemes. But there were stakes to this game, and he wouldn’t trick Michel into potentially getting injured for his sake. It had to come from Michel. Did he want his father’s life, or the chance to make his own? The choice had come; in or out.
After what seemed like an eternity, Michel straightened. He sighed, and turned to face Alain. A smile twitched at the corners of his lips, the first in what Alain felt was a long time. Trouble still brewed behind his eyes, but it was faint, held in check.
“Let’s hear this so-called ‘plan’.”
This was the part he loved the most. The plan was in place, the pieces of the chessboard set. It was their move; his next would be mate. He savored his victory, already sure of it.
The valley breathed gently around him, held in the still cup of early morning. Birds chirped in the trees and soared in the cloudless sky. The river droned past, steel-grey with snowmelt bound for the sunny shores southward.
It was going to be a beautiful day, and Guidry smiled from the joy of it.
A glint of sunlight caught his eye at the end of the road upriver, and he crouched lower beneath the pine needles. Time for the game.
First came the guards, three of them on horseback, just as he had been informed. They rode with the reins held lightly, laughing and joking as if they were riding to the fair. Their weapons lay forgotten in holsters by their saddles. Guidry took a moment to feel pity for their mounts–beautiful striders, bred by the stable-master in Lyon who was renowned for his clean bloodlines.
After the guards came the carriage. Gilded and painted with lilies, if you didn’t mind, complete with a liveried chauffeur sitting on a velvet bench. He was staring around the valley floor, enchanted by the teeth of the Massif that soared around him, still clad in their winter coats of snow and ice. In his defence, it was a magnificent view; exactly why Guidry had chosen it.
He stared at the carriage hungrily. The take of a lifetime, walking straight into his hands. A member of the house of Lyon, out for a drive. He thought again about the ransom he would get from whatever bouffon was foolish enough to waltz into the Massif so lightly guarded. If it was a blood-member, it would be in close to a thousand francs. Even a cousin would fetch a handsome price, plus whatever he could get for the carriage…a year’s worth of food for him, his men and their families. It had been a tough winter, and the relief would be welcome.
Claude’s youngest had a particularly nasty cough, and this take would allow him to buy some medicine from Grenoble–good medicine, too, not the perfumed oil the hacks in Choranche sold. Phillippe’s house had burned down in October. It was his own fault; the man forgot a candle in the bedroom and went out drinking. He came back to a crackling blaze and not much else left of his possessions–he had been sleeping in Guidry’s spare bedroom for months. This haul meant he could afford to commission another, and Guidry was glad about it; the man snored fit to wake the dead.
Thinking about the haul, likely as not there was also a strongbox in the carriage full of silver francs, perhaps even with a smattering of gold. Nobility didn’t travel empty-handed, mais bien sûr. He would take that; his cut for a plan executed to perfection.
The guards were pulling near. He reached for the dagger at his waist, gently resting it against the rope tied to the trunk beside him. He watched the three guards unblinking, scarcely breathing as he measured the distance. Almost, almost…now.
He cut the rope.
High up the steep slope of the valley, a mule cart loaded with rocks was released from its moorings. It shrieked downhill, picking up deadly velocity in a matter of seconds.
“Do you hear something?” One of the guards asked the others, frowning towards the hillside. “It sounds like–”
The cart shot from the undergrowth in a blur and struck the first horse just below the ribs, killing both man and beast instantly, sending their corpses careening into their fellows. The cart itself exploded into a shower of rocks, caving in the face of the man who had heard his death coming for him. The remaining guard was thrown bodily from his horse as it reared in panic and turned to flee. Two arrows buried themselves in his chest before he could so much as stir upwards, and another three made sure the horse never raised an alarm.
The chauffeur hauled the two horses to a dead halt, staring in blank surprise at the carnage before him.
Five seconds after he had cut the rope, Guidry stood and strode into the road, entirely at ease.
“Good morning!” He called to the driver. “There is a rifle trained at your chest at this very moment. If you’d like to live, I suggest you remain exactly where you are.”
The chauffeur dropped the reins and both hands shot into the air.
“There’s a good lad. Excuse me! You in the carriage there! Might we have a word?”
“Alain, this coat smells of piss.”
“Are you sure it isn’t you? Ow! No kicking!”
“We’ve been riding for hours. Are we almost there?”
“Just around the riverbend. Here, take this and soak your shirt with it.”
“Ugh! What is it?”
“Think of it this way; you won’t smell like piss.”
It was always the men. Rain or shine, day or night, you could always count on men to do something stupid when challenged. Particularly if there was a woman involved.
This particular man–if he could be called as such, he was barely out of adolescence–burst from the confines of the carriage brandishing an expensive rapier that clearly wasn’t his.
“Back! Stay back bandits!” He cried, nearly keeping his voice from cracking. Nearly.
“By the blood of my fathers, I swear you shall never lay a finger on my beloved!”
He was dressed in the garb of a courtier, but it fit badly–his coat was too big and wallowed on his frame, and the trousers were held up with what appeared to be a length of silk. Was there no end to foolish boys diving into the Massif? First the rabbits from yesterday, and now this one? It was hard for a man to take himself seriously when he was stealing from babes.
“You!” The youth cried, seeing Guidry. He stamped forward, the rapier held in a duelling stance. “I challenge you for your cowardly actions this morn! En guarde!” Beneath his mop of black curls, his face was drawn and haughty, full of learned arrogance.
This morn? Who actually spoke like that?
“Normally I would be more than happy to oblige you, my lad.” Guidry unsheathed his own rapier and held it in a salute, signaling with his other hand. “But I’m rather in the middle of something. Nothing personal.”
The youth had time for a flicker of suspicion before the butt of a musket applied to the back of his head sent him sprawling into the dirt.
“They get younger every year, don’t they?” Phillippe said, inspecting the unconscious figure at his feet.
“Or we’re getting older. Time is a cruel mistress, Phillippe my man.” Guidry said, sheathing his sword. “How hard did you hit him?”
“He should come around in a few minutes or so. I was almost as surprised as he was.”
“Use the reins from one of those horses to tie him to the wheel.” Guidry stepped over the prostrate lad. The carriage door was still open.
“Good morning ladies.”
Three woman sat on the bench opposite the driver. Two were pressed as far into the recesses of the carriage as they could manage, whimpering in terror. The third, however…she was a different story. She sat in the center of the bench, back straight and hands folded in her lap as though she was sitting at tea. Her eyes were chips of flint. She was young, perhaps around eighteen, and full of fire. Her arrogance was the kind one could only be born with.
“I’m assuming that you’re the ruffian that wantonly attacked my men?”
Guidry barked in surprised laughter. It had been years since he had been referred to as a ‘ruffian’.
“I am. Guidry Lemornay, at your service.” He made a mock bow. “And I’m assuming that you’re the owner of this magnificent carriage and accoutrements?”
“Sophia Royaume, of Lyon.”
“My lady.” Guidry bowed again.
“I should like to inform you that if you or your men lay a finger on myself or my ladies-in-waiting, my father will have you and your men hunted like dogs and flayed alive in the town square.”
It wasn’t a threat–there was no arrogance or bluster in her voice, but there was a touch of doubt. Full of fire, yes, but not old enough to be certain in herself.
He bared his teeth.
“I can assure you, my lady, neither my men nor myself will lay a hand on you. Precious cargo, you see, and worth more unspoiled. My apologies, but the same courtesy doesn’t extend to your ladies-in-waiting.” The woman on the far end of madame Royaume began to sob, a weak and watery sound that grated at his nerves. The other froze, as a rabbit when cornered by foxes. That one was rather plump beneath her dress, he saw, and a rush of heat curled in his groin. He wondered how far that plumpness extended. He liked his women with a bit of meat on their bones–she was also quieter. There was time, anyway; the plan had gone splendidly.
“You bastard.” The noblewoman said, looking at him as though he were a cockroach.
“Welcome to the Massif, madame. Now, come here my love. Let’s see if we can find a little privacy beside the road, eh?”
He hauled her bodily from the carriage, ignoring that barrage of rather un-ladylike curses following him. Behind him on the road, Claude and Angel were busy stripping the corpses of the guards, throwing their valuables into a pile.
“Phillippe, I’m going to take this one for a walk. Keep an eye on those two, oui? Make sure they don’t do anything stupid.”
“Yes sir.” Phillippe levelled his musket towards the noble and her lady. Unsurprisingly, the insults being hurled in his direction stopped cold. Well, that might not be so surprising. He found that most people acted differently with a musket pointed at them.
Guidry was already thinking of the spot behind the pine trees where the fallen needles made for soft pushing when he saw the fur traders.
“What on earth…?”
There were two of them, sitting unsaddled on a mule. The man in front held the reins limply in one hand and a brown earthenware bottle in the other. His head was bent low, covered with a wide-brimmed hat, and he sagged forward with every step the beast took–drunk asleep, or rapidly on the way. The man in the back was singing–or at least he thought so. It sounded something like a cat being strangled. He, too, held a bottle, and took deep swigs in between each shouted chorus.
Guidry swore, cursing his ill-fortune. The perfect plan couldn’t account for sheer, dumb luck. Most of the trappers in the Massif came down from their holes in the mountains with the first signs of spring; these two must have lingered, hoping for an early-season bear cub. A job for his men, this time around, Guidry decided. There was a rather insistent pressure in the front of his trousers that needed seeing to, and two drunk trappers wouldn’t give them any concern.
“Phillippe.” He said, jerking his head at the traders.“A little bump in the road. Go hold them up while we finish here. Angel.” The archer looked up, hopping slightly as he compared his boot size with one of the dead men’s. “Go with him. Keep them happy and quiet. Don’t hurt them. No need to make any more noise today than we already have, understood?”
The two men nodded and turned to their business.
“Now then, my dear.” Guidry turned back to the woman, who regarded him with huge-eyed terror. “Let’s go have a little chat, hmm?”
He squeezed one of her breasts, pleased with the weight and size of it. She whimpered.
“Now Alain!” The shout came from the road behind him.
That was when everything started to go terribly wrong.
“It’s the one with the musket, and the archer.” Michel whispered. The thick scarf wound around his face muffled his voice. “They’re coming over. Guidry and the other one are by the carriage.”
Alain grinned at the mule’s neck through his own scarf. Perfect. His heart, already beating hard in his chest with nerves, quickened.
He let the donkey continue to amble forward. The wide brim of the woven gardner’s hat blocked most of his vision save for a small slice of road.
“Alain. Alain, you’re never going to believe this.” There was genuine joy in his cousin’s voice.
“What?” He hissed, moving his lips as little as possible. He was supposed to be passed out, and passed-out people didn’t speak.
“There’s a man tied to the wagon-wheel, unconscious.”
“Alain, it’s Gascon.”
In his entire life, Alain had never had to work so hard to stifle laughter; it threatened to choke him, made it difficult to breathe. What on earth was that buffoon doing here? He must have had the ill-fortune to be in the carriage, which meant only one person could be inside.
“We’ll deal with him later. Stick to the plan.” He shut his mouth–just in time.
“Ho there!” He heard a cheerful voice–that same one that had hailed them not two days ago–ring out. “How goes it with you, trappers?”
“Go’ morn to ye!” Michel cried out. His words were slurred. “A fine one, a fine one, and how goe’ it wi’ you?” He leaned forward and to the side, cackling.
“Paww!” Alain could practically hear the man wrinkling his nose at the smell. Sour beer and sweat rolled off them in waves. They were close; within ten or fifteen paces. “You boys been celebrating for a while?”
The donkey continued forward.
“Just a bit!” Michel bellowed before breaking into giggles.
“We’re doing a bit of business up ahead and beg a few moments of your time.”
The difference in his voice was remarkable–amiable, friendly almost. A bandit to a trapper, just men plying their trade in the wilderness of the Massif. It didn’t make a difference to Alain; the man had sealed his fate when he first pulled his gun from beneath that blanket yesterday morning.
The reins in his hand twitched. Alain could see the man’s boot, just to the front and right of him.
He tensed. Any second.
“We’ve got some important guests this morning lads.” The man said. “If you’ve a few hours perhaps you can share one–”
He whipped his hand up and over as hard as he could, looking at the bandit for the first time.
Michel’s cry startled the man and he flinched backwards–straight into the path of the cider bottle streaking towards his face. The bottle shattered, the air filled with blood-mist. The man staggered backwards, shrieking in pain. Red rivers ran between his fingers where they clutched his ruined visage.
The archer, quick as lightning, already had an arrow in his hand and had taken a step back to fire, but Michel’s bottle collided with his wrist, knocking it from the bow-strong. His cousin launched himself off the donkey and collapsed atop the archer, kicking and punching.
Everything was happening at once, it was all a blur. The other bandits were shouting, a woman was screaming. He could see figures running towards them.
Alain threw himself from the donkey as well, landing half on, half off the bloodied man, who was already regaining his composure. He lashed out with an elbow which collided with Alain’s jaw, filling his vision with a flash of white.
There is no honor in defeat. Guidry’s words whispered in his ear.
Phillippe was trying to reach for the gun–his face was a meaty ruin of gashed flesh–and Alain kicked him as hard as he could in the crotch What little blood was left in the man’s face fled, and he collapsed to his knees. Alain seized the musket, cocked the trigger and shouldered it in a clumsy rush.
The scene before him was utter chaos. In front of the carriage the ground was a ruin of dead horses and men, covered with rock and dust and the remains of what appeared to be a mule cart. One man was running pell-mell towards them, his mace clutched tight in his fist. He staggered to a stop fifteen paces away, glaring hard first at the musket, then at Alain.
A woman in an expensive dress was frozen two steps away from the carriage. Her auburn hair floated gently on the breeze. Her eyes were narrowed, untrusting. She straightened slowly, but made no move forward or backward.
A man was, in fact, tied to the wheel of the carriage, but Alain wasn’t paying enough attention to know if it was Gascon or not.
His hot eyes were locked on Guidry.
“Good morning.” The bandit said, perfectly calm. He was almost entirely hidden behind the woman he held hostage, his hand deeply entwined in her hair. The point of his dagger tickled the soft skin beneath her jaw. The woman whimpered, and he shook her into silence, staring maliciously behind her shoulder.
“Can I help you gentlemen?”
“Ho! Trappers! Down here!”
As soon as the man opened his mouth, Alain knew it was Gascon–his voice seemed to catch his last nerve no matter the circumstances. He was wriggling against the bonds that held him against the carriage wheel, staring in wide-eyed surprise at the drama before him.
“Untie me! I can help!”
“If you could help you wouldn’t be tied to that wheel in the first place.” Alain said without breaking eye contact with Guidry. “I’ll deal with you in a moment. Michel, are you alright?”
“Just fine. Back up, you. Dump that quiver of arrows on the ground and take ten steps back.”
The archer stumbled forward, his snarl of anger painted red from his bloody nose. His clothes were smeared with dirt and mud. Michel held the man’s dirk in one hand, and his bow in the other. The archer did as he was told, his narrowed eyes never leaving Michel’s.
“You.” Alain kicked Phillippe. “Get up. Dump that knife on the ground, and back away.”
“There seems to be some mistake.” Guidry called. “Why don’t we all just calm down, and we can talk this out? There’s no need for unpleasantness. Would you like a woman? We have several. Money? Don’t fret a hair–”
Without moving the rifle, Alain unraveled the scarf around his neck and threw off the hat.
For a moment, it felt like nothing in the valley moved. No birds cried, no wind moved through the trees. He and the bandit were frozen in their places, held still in a single second.
“Alain?” Gascon sounded like someone had hit him in the gut. “Alain Dubois?”
He looked like he was going to be ill.
Guidry began to laugh. It erupted from him in huge waves, shook him and the helpless woman he held in his clutches.
“Ha! Mon Dieu! My rabbits! Is it really you?” When he spoke again, genuine affection dripped from his grinning lips. “It is! You’re here!” He shook his head, amazed. “Why, when we last saw you, I was honestly in doubt that you would make if out of the Massif alive! And yet, here you are!”
Another bubble of delighted laughter escaped his mouth.
If any of Guidry’s men shared his joy, they did a masterful job of hiding it behind furious glares.
“Alain, what are you doing here? Do you know this man?”
“Shut up, Gascon.” Alain said through gritted teeth. “Guidry, let the woman go.”
His mind was tripping up over what happened next. Did he secure the noblewoman? Did he negotiate hostages? Did he have the bandits tie themselves?
“Ah, see I’m afraid I can’t do that, rabbit.” Guidry said, tutting his head and shaking. He pulled the woman tighter against his chest, and she let out a terrified whimper. Alain struggled to keep his calm. This was evolving out of his control very quickly.
“You see, we’re in a precarious position here–”
“I know what kind of position we’re in!”
“Do you?” Guidry hissed, and all traces of warmth evaporated from his voice. “Because it seems to me that you’ve deliberately placed yourself in my path yet again, only this time you’ve managed to bumble your way between me and something that I want.”
“Check again, connard.” Alain called back. Guidry’s eyes narrowed at the insult. “It seems to me that we have you and your men at gunpoint. Your archer is out of arrows, and none of you are close enough to do anything about it.”
“Wrong.” Guidry said, savoring the word. “You’ve got a musket with one shot. And by my count, it’s four against two. Which means that once you’ve taken your one shot, we still outnumber you. And judging by the elephantine way you’re handling that firearm, you’ve never fired one before. So how effective do you think you’re going to be, rabbit?”
Alain couldn’t help slipping a look at the archer and the bandit with the ruined face. The man with the mace, not far enough behind them.Their eyes were murderous, their fists clenched tight. They were close, too close. He should have had them back up further. If Guidry gave the order for them to charge…
“Alain! Untie me! Sophia! My love, quick, come and cut the ropes!”
Everyone ignored Gascon.
“Alain, do something.” Michel whispered. He tightened his grip on the dagger. “What’s the plan?”
His mind raced. He swallowed, and his mouth was suddenly dry. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Guidry was supposed to be unarmed, was supposed to give up–
The bandit in question gasped in mock delight. “Uh-oh! The poor boy doesn’t know what to do now, boys! Look at the panic in his face!” He began to laugh again, high-pitched and mocking.
Embarrassment brought a flush to his face, and he ground his teeth in frustration. Think, he had to think. Guidry was right, he only had one shot, and the bastard was cowering behind a woman–there was no way he would hit him. He could only wound one person–
it came to him in a flash. There was only one person on the road that really mattered. And it wasn’t Guidry.
“You know something, bandit? You’re right.” Alain said. “But consider this for a second.”
He moved the barrel of the musket, and aimed dead-center at the chest of the woman in the elegant dress.
“How much do you think the Duke of Lyon cares about his only daughter, hmm?”
“You bastard!” The woman swore. “I thought you were here to help!”
“Alain, how dare you!” Gascon squealed in indignation, his face flushing scarlet. He writhed against the wagon wheel–whoever had tied him up had done a masterful job, because he hadn’t so much as budged. “Do you have any idea who she is?”
Alain ignored both of them. He was staring at Guidry, and Guidry was staring at him. This was it. This was the moment. The crux of it all.
“Enough to send an army of men into the Massif to hunt down the bandits responsible, I’d wager. And sure, you wouldn’t be the one who pulled the trigger, but do you think a grieving father is going to believe that? Michel, what do you think?”
“I’d say no, Alain.”
Alain clicked his tongue and shook his head in sympathy. “I’m afraid I have to agree.”
Now it was his turn to bare his teeth in a smile that he hoped was humorless. Beneath the protective coating of a thin layer of bravado, his heart was hammering inside his chest. He hoped none of the bandits could see the beads of sweat he felt beading at his hairline. The woman’s face was still as a statue’s. Gascon was alternating between curses and shrieked threats that no one paid any attention to.
“So what’s it going to be, Guidry, hmm? Even I could hit this shot. I kill her, you kill us and then you spend the rest of your very short life fleeing the wrath of the fourth most powerful man in the country? How long do you think you’ll last? A week, at the very most? What about your men here? How much time do you give them?”
The bandit’s face contorted into a mask of scarlet fury.
“You wouldn’t. A boy like you? You don’t have the balls.”
Alain cocked priming pan on the musket.
“Let’s find out together.” He thought for sure his voice would crack. He was bluffing, and it was a gapingly empty bluff at that. He couldn’t shoot a member of the nobility any more than he could Michel. If he could even hit her at that distance, which he was relatively sure he couldn’t.
Guidry’s eyes bored into his for what felt like an eternity, calculating. Weighing.
Alain stared back, and didn’t blink. He couldn’t be the first to blink, he knew that much. He had to believe his own lie.
With a muted cry of frustration, Guidry threw the woman to the ground, holding the dagger in the air. She scrambled away on her hands and knees, fleeing towards the woman in the elegant dress. The noblewoman immediately hid the girl behind her, shielding her.
“You men, back up. To that tree over there.” Alain motioned with the barrel of the musket, attempting not to sway in relief. “Guidry, unbuckle that blade, drop it on the ground and then go with them.”
“You’ll pay for this, rabbits.” The bandit said, his voice venomous. “I know every village within a hundred miles of this place. There is nowhere you can hide from me. I will find you, and I will make you pay dearly for this.”
“I’m sure you will. My lady!”
The woman looked at him, cold as a winter’s gale.
“What do you want, bandit?”
Being called a bandit sliced him to the quick, but he shrugged the insult away. It could be dealt with later.
“My name is Alain Dubois!” He called, flickering between Guidry’s men and her. “I need you to do one thing for me.”
“I’m not in the habit of aiding men with a rifle pointed at my chest.”
“This rifle is the only thing keeping us alive right now.” Alain said. Guidry’s eyes narrowed, and he took a tiny step forward, his nostrils flaring like he could smell indecision. The bandits around him followed his lead, tightening into a small knot, clenching their fists. They looked hungry.
“Back! Get back!” Michel cried, swinging the dagger to bear on the group. There were four of them, though, and only one of him.
“My lady, we don’t have time for this!” Alain cried. “Listen, you don’t have to trust me. Just–just send your girl there to cut Gascon free. You trust Gascon, yes?”
The woman turned slowly to face the man tied to the wagon.
“Well isn’t that an interesting question. What do you think, Pasquelle? Do I trust you?”
“Who is Pasquelle?” Michel hissed over his shoulder.
“I was going to tell you.” Gascon said, his voice hoarse. He was staring up at Sophia with wide eyes.
“It’s just–when we first met, I bumped into you, and you demanded my name–I panicked, I thought–”
Alain couldn’t believe his ears. Gascon had made up a fake name. And not just any fake name. The most foppish, foolish name he had ever heard.
He fought back a grin. Not the time. Although there certainly would be time, later.
If they lived.
“My lady! It doesn’t matter what his name is! Have your girl untie him, quick!”
“Josephine, go.” The woman urged, and the girl behind her ran over to Gascon, slicing his bonds with a fallen dagger.
“Gascon, pick up that sword there. Stand by Michel, and keep those bastards where they are.”
Guidry and his men snarled, but backed down in the face of two armed men in front of them.
“Where are your horses?” Alain called.
“Michel? What do you think?”
Michel cocked his head at Guidry, then the road. He pointed at the pile of horse corpses and rocks.
“Judging by the dead van of guards there, I’d say they waited uproad, waiting to spring their little trap. The hill beside the road here is far too steep to climb pack-horses…I think they’re down the road there.” He nodded to a bend further down the road where it disappeared behind the beginning of the ridge that rose to their left.
“Smart, aren’t you, pretty boy?” Guidry said. It was his tone that should have alerted Alain; suddenly playful, coy–a far cry from the sullen silence only moments before. He didn’t catch it in time; not before the bandit puckered his lips and spat wetly onto Michel, coating his cheek in spittle.
Total, overwhelming surprise consumed Michel’s face, and his guard dropped for just a second.
Which was was all Guidry needed.
He surged forward in a blur of limbs, and before Gascon or Alain could so much as cry out in shock, the bandit had the dagger that was in Michel’s hand against his throat.
Alain whipped the barrel of the musket around. His hands were sweaty against the wooden stock now. His arms were beginning to get tired; he felt like he had been holding it for hours.
“Let him go!”
Guidry’s grinned at him behind Michel’s shoulder. He backed into the knot of his men, protecting himself with a wall of flesh.
“Oh! Weren’t expecting that, were you?”
“You disgusting–” Michel began, but choked off in a pained cry.
“Hush, rabbit. I’m talking.” Guidry whispered in his ear, twisting the dagger into Michel’s neck. Blood ran down his cousin’s neck; Alain’s stomach plummeted.
“You infuriating child.” There was no play in his voice now, no bored mocking. The weight of his considerable anger glinted in his leopard-green eyes.
“I told you the last lesson was free, and if you came seeking another the cost would be much greater, n’est pas? You got to give your little speech, now let me give you mine–I’m going to kill your friend here.”
Michel twisted and bucked, but Guidry’s hold merely tightened. The fear in his cousin’s eyes chilled Alain to the bone.
“Your little ploy with the bitch in the fancy dress–”
“Do any of you you have any idea–”
“Gascon, shut up!” Michel and Alain cried in unison, and Gascon shut his mouth.
“Your little ploy with the bitch in the fancy dress was pretty quick, I’ll give that to you. But you know who the Duke doesn’t care about? A nothing farmer’s son, and his little friend. So oui, you might take the day here and claim victory–but when you’re holding his cold body in your hands I want you to really think if it was worth going up against Guidry Lemornay.”
The bandit clenched his teeth and pushed the dagger further into Michel’s neck; his cousin writhed away from the blade and screamed, truly screamed in pain for the first time in Alain’s life. He felt it in his soul, and it clawed him open.
“Wait!” He cried, and dropped the tip of the musket. He couldn’t seem to think correctly—his head was full of a dull buzzing. It was all devolving, spinning into chaos. He made he only decision he could. Michel didn’t deserve this.
“Take me instead.”
“What?” Gascon demanded, whirling around.
“Alain, stop–” Michel’s voice was weak and he could barely hear it.
“An even trade. You give me Michel, you let him, Gascon, the woman and her ladies go.”
“Nice try, boy. Your life isn’t worth that much.”
But Guidry was intrigued, he could see the pause in his face.
“Gascon, is there a strongbox in the carriage?” Alain asked. The youth nodded.
“Then you’ll get that, too.” He could see the machinations in Guidry’s head working. “How much is your revenge worth, bandit? That strongbox is worth more than what you could get for the carriage anyway, isn’t it?”
“And why would you do that?” Guidry asked, his eyes narrowed into slits. “Why take his place?”
A number of answers sprang to his lips, and he dismissed them all. He didn’t need to justify himself to this man.
“That’s none of your concern. My life, for his. Take it or leave it.”
“Loyalty. I respect that.” Guidry said. “That’s generous of you, rabbit. I think if I was in your shoes, I would have done the same thing. And it’s a rare thing, to meet someone who thinks like I do.”
He knew the answer before it came to the bastard’s lips. He saw it flutter across his face in a shadow, and knew that his gambit had failed.
“No deal. The boy dies.”
He tensed to bury the dagger in Michel’s neck; Alain tensed to spring, heedless of danger. His cousin closed his eyes. Everything blurred; time slowed.
A blade punched through Guidry’s upper arm, dripping with blood. His eyes went wide as saucers, and the dagger dropped from nerveless fingers. Behind him, the young noblewoman in the elegant dress clenched her jaw with effort and sawed the fallen dirk even deeper.
“A gift from the house of Lyon.” Her words dripped fire. Standing in the light of the valley, her hair a blaze of auburn, she appeared to Alain incandescent in both her beauty and her anger.
“Get back, you men!” Gascon came to life, leaping forward and whipping the three men with the side of the rapier. “Michel, to me!”
He seized Michel, pulling him to safety.
The men flinched away from the blade, staring at their leader. Guidry had collapsed onto his knees, his arm frozen at a right-angle. A rose of blood bloomed on his shirt-sleeve, and began to spread down his side. His surprise was absolute.
Gascon drove the men up the road with elaborate flourishes of his rapier. After a dozen paces or so they fled, shambling, bleeding, broken.
Alain sank to a knee before the fallen bandit. His heart was still pounding against his ribs, and cold sweat still dripped from his face, but the look of stunned pain on the bandit’s face was a sweet salve to his fractured nerves. He reached out and lifted Guidry’s face, looking at him squarely.
“Lesson one; doubt me at your peril. Consider this lesson to be free, bandit. If you seek another, the cost will be more dear indeed.”
“I’ll find you.” Guidry’s words were as weak.
Alain slapped him genially across the face and winked.
“Sure you will, chum. But in the meantime, I’m sure you’ll excuse me. Other matters to see to.”
He left him there, bleeding on his knees.
The auburn woman was nearby, speaking to her lady-in-waiting in soft, soothing tones. He walked over to her and dropped into a low bow.
“My lady. I must beg your forgiveness, I never meant to–”
The noblewoman silenced him with a hand. For a girl barely older than he, she seemed to loom over him.
“What did you say your name was?”
“Alain, Milady. Alain Dubois.”
“The penalty for threatening the health and well-being of a noble is death, monsieur Dubois. Did you know that? I could have you hung.”
Alain cleared his throat. He found her beauty truly bewitching, even under the circumstances.
“Alain never has had the elegance for proper manners.” Gascon said with a slight sneer from behind him. “Isn’t that right?”
“Ah, Gascon. Your wit wounds me, as ever.” Alain murmured.
“Tall talk from a man facing the gallows.” The smugness in his voice was impossible to miss.
“That’s enough out of you Pasquelle. Or should I say Gascon?” The noblewoman said, cold as ice. She arched a single eyebrow at him, and the power of that single gesture forced him an instinctive step backwards, the haughtiness draining from his face. “You and I will have several conversations later about your lies. At length. Now, as I was saying–”
“I believe you were thanking me. For saving your life. And the lives of your companions here.” Alain interrupted. The words were so bold he almost couldn’t give himself credit for having spoke them. Gascon gasped, scandalized, and a few steps away Michel snorted in a suppressed chuckle, turning it into a coughing fit he covered with one fist. He had a handkerchief pressed over the wound in his neck, and it looked like the bleeding was already slowing.
The ghost of a smile twitched at the corner of the woman’s soft lips, however, and he knew he was safe.
“Is that right?”
“That’s right.” Alain said. “And I believe you were going to offer me and my cousin a reward. A small one, of course–for our humble service.”
“Alain, how dare you speak to–”
“Shut up, ‘Pasquelle’.”
Michel’s ‘coughing’ became hoarse and strained.
“And what kind of ‘small’ reward was I about to offer?” The woman asked, and Alain could swear a twinkle of amusement gleamed in her eyes.
Behind him, he heard Michel stir. This was the only part of the plan that they hadn’t talked about. Alain knew what he would ask for; he had known almost his entire life. A letter of recommendation from the Duke, a man who knew the King personally, to the captain of the King’s musketeers. He wanted it so badly he could taste it.
But there was something else to consider. The mark of the musketeer he wanted to be. It wasn’t how they helped themselves, but how they helped others. He had a chance here, a chance to change the lives of two people who desperately needed help.
He sighed. At least his cousin would be proud of him. That letter of recommendation would have to wait just a little while longer. He took a deep breath, and began.
“You may not remember them, but there’s a couple who live in a tiny village near where you entered the Massif…”
“I still think we should have knocked.”
“It’s better this way. They’ll find it on their door in the morning. Like a christmas present.”
“Or it’ll be stolen.”
“Michel, the village doesn’t even have a name. How many criminals can there really be? Besides, I covered it with the hat we borrowed.”
“A foolproof plan, that one. Nothing to see here, thieves! Just your everyday gardeners hat perched over a mysterious parcel in front of someone’s door.”
“Nobody loves a cynic, cousin.”
“Lady Sophia didn’t look too pleased with Gascon when we left did she?”
“Who? We don’t know any Gascon.”
“Oh, I’m sorry–Pasquelle.”
“Of course, Pasquelle! No, no she did not. I shouldn’t wonder if poor Pasquelle’s involvement with the house of Lyon has come to an end. Shame.”
“Telling her that his mother was the finest goat-farmer in Roussard-en-lac likely didn’t help his prospects with royalty.”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about Michel old boy. I was too worked up from the battle. Must have blacked out.”
“I still think that midsummer’s ball she invited us to is a hoax.”
“What did I just say about a cynic? She’s just showing up how appreciative she is.”
“Would that there was a different way she could show her appreciation, eh coz? I saw the way you were looking at her.”
“Michel don’t be bawdy. It’s unbecoming in a lady of your stature.”
“So what’s next? It’s a long two days to Plein-de-Baix, and Grandfather’s plot.”
“Let’s find some trouble along the way, shall we?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”