Back | Next
Contents


PART VIII
In Which, With
Great Horror, We Relate
the Despicable Doings of the
Desperado Sfondrati-Piccolomini
As He Takes It Upon Himself
To Stand Against Custom
in the Baronies.

The Autobiography of Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini,
Episode 5: Dirt, Darkness, Droits and Decisions


So it was in such cramped quarters that I awoke later that day. For a moment—quite a long moment, truth be told—I luxuriated in the feel of Gwendolyn's body pressed against my own. Beyond the thicket in which we were hidden, the sun was setting. The reddish glow within the dimness of the thick shrubbery bathed her in soft and glorious color.


I became so engrossed in the artistic possibilities, in addition to the purely sensual aspects of the experience, that I was quite oblivious when Gwendolyn herself awoke. Her head was nestled on my shoulder, her face turned toward me, and I suspect she studied me under lowered lids for some time before she finally spoke.


"I'm not sure whether to be flattered, annoyed, amused—or all three," she murmured. "I've been ogled before, but . . . never like this."


I froze for an instant. But then, feeling the gentle pressure of her hand on my chest and realizing that she was not really offended, I smiled. "My apologies, I suppose. But you are both beautiful in your own right and—" I groped for words. "It would make such a magnificent portrait."


Her initial response was a slight stiffness. But then I felt her hand slide down from my chest and come to rest on my ribs, as if instinct was urging her to caress. The sensation that little movement produced in me was . . . call it intense.


I believe it was for her, also. At least, the chuckle which she emitted seemed strained and forced. "So. What's the title? And I warn you again—no 'leather' or 'form and function' allowed."


My own response was a bit forced, I suspect. "I was thinking more along the lines of Tranquility Where Not Expected."


Her hand on my ribs seemed to tighten a moment, and not with anger. Again, the sensation that movement produced was . . . intense. Then, she sighed.


"It's too bad, it really is. But it still wouldn't work."


A moment later, with the tigerish energy of which she was capable, Gwendolyn was up and wriggling her way out of the thicket. "Come on—we've got to get moving."


I followed, as quickly and obediently as anyone could ask. I admit, the sight of her posterior wriggling its way through the bushes ahead of me was a powerful incentive.


Once in the open, Gwendolyn cast a quick and wary eye over the area. The sun was over the horizon now, but there was still enough light to see by.


"Safe enough," she murmured. "I'd rather wait until midnight, but time is a priority."


A moment later, she was trotting off down a path which could only be called a "country lane" by the most generous definition. "Rutted dirt road" captures more of the reality, understanding that the "ruts" looked to have been made by something other than wheels. Small skids, I imagined.


After a while, once darkness had fallen completely, the little irregularities in the road caused me to trip and stumble several times. The pack I was carrying was not particularly heavy—our food was almost entirely gone, by now—but my special easel was, as always, an awkward thing to carry.


I must have been cursing not entirely under my breath, because I heard Gwendolyn's husky whisper urging me to silence. Then, in a hiss: "Nobody asked you to bring the stupid thing."


Which was true, of course, but still uncharitable. I believed I muttered as much. Gwendolyn's only response was a low chuckle.


* * *


We traveled through the night, our progress greatly slowed by the absence of any moon beyond a sliver and the rough terrain. The same darkness, of course, provided us with a certain measure of safety. Near dawn, Gwendolyn found another suitable thicket and we made our daytime lair. These quarters were, if anything, even more cramped than the last had been.


"What?" murmured Gwendolyn, with another little low chuckle. "No complaints?"


Feeling her pressed against me down the entire length of my body—amazing how thin leather can seem—I believe I managed to choke out a negative reply.


* * *


The next two days passed in a similar manner. On the evening of the fourth day, a complication arose.


Just as we were preparing to crawl out of our thicket at sundown, we heard the drumming of horse hooves. We shrank back into the thickness of the shrubbery, holding ourselves utterly still. Despite the lush foliage, we were able to see enough of the barren ground beyond to study ensuing events.


Two children burst onto the scene, clambering over a distant stone wall. They were both girls—although it was hard for me to be certain at first, between their filthy garments and the fact that they were so young. Perhaps fourteen and fifteen years old. The long hair and a certain delicacy of the features were the principal determinants of my judgement.


One of the girls spotted our thicket. She grabbed the other by the shoulder and pointed at it. The two of them began racing toward us. Next to me, I heard Gwendolyn hiss softly.


Long before the girls could reach our shelter, however, they were intercepted by a man on horseback coming from somewhere behind and to the left of the thicket we were hidden in. The man atop the beast was even mangier looking than the "horse" itself, dressed in what seemed to be a pastiche of filthy furs and bits of armor. His head was covered by a helmet which would have given my uncle Giotto apoplexy had he seen the design. A "horned helmet" it was, just like the staple of barbarian imagery—except the "horns" were actually some kind of (mangy, what else?) antlers, and the helmet itself was not a single piece but several poorly-beaten flanges of iron tied together (not well) by rawhide. One of the antlers had come loose, and was flopping around on the man's right shoulder.


The girls veered off and tried to make their escape over another stone wall. But before they could get to the wall, one of them—the younger—had been snared by a noose thrown by the horseman. The other girl made a frantic attempt to pry the noose off her companion. But, whatever the captor's other failings, he was clearly an expert at this endeavor. He had his end of the rope snug to the pommel of his saddle, and was backing up his horse in such a way as to keep the noose tight.


Two more horsemen appeared, leaping their mounts over the same low wall from which the girls had first burst onto the scene. I was surprised to see the relative grace with which the horses managed that leap. But then, reflected that in this terrain the ability to leap low walls of stone was probably the single most prized feature in a "warhorse."


The older girl still at liberty took one look at them and gave up her attempts to free her companion. She began running toward the other stone wall. But, after taking not more than seven or eight steps, she desisted. It was obvious enough that the two new horsemen would reach the wall long before she did.


Disconsolately, she turned back and rejoined her trapped companion. Younger sister, I assumed. They were close enough by then that a certain familial resemblance could be seen.


The man who had lassoed the girl was now on the ground. He was making his way along the rope to the captured girl, expertly maintaining the tension. I recognized the skill, of course. I was a maestro in the use of a whip (if I say so myself—more to the point, my uncle Larue says so). And while a whip and a lasso are not the same, the two devices are similar enough that my uncle Larue had spent some time acquainting me with the art of lassoing. In which art, of course, he was superb—as he was with the use of a bola, or, indeed, any weapon involving the same general principles.


As the man drew near the captured girl, her companion began cursing bitterly. Given the surroundings, I was not surprised to hear such brilliant invective and profanity issuing from the lips of a fifteen-year-old girl.


Eventually, the profanity ceased and the girl lapsed into standard language. "T'ain't right!" she shrilled. "It's not my birthday—Lana's neither! And it's not a saints' day!"


The other two horsemen had reached the scene, and were dismounting. One of them, hearing the girl's protest, laughed harshly. "The Baron decides what's 'right,' girl. Advised by his soothsayer, o' course." He pointed to the new moon, whose dim silhouette could be seen above the horizon. The sun had set, by now, but the area was still half-illuminated by its dying glow. "Th' Baron says 'tis only right that droit d'seigneur applies at new moon too, seein' as how the whole business is tied to the lunar cycle and sech."


"T'aint' fair!" shrilled the girl. "T'aint't!" echoed her younger sister.


The man who had spoken advanced and took the older one by the scruff of her tunic. Then, shrugged. "Wha's 'fair' got to do with anytin'? Th' Baron decides what's fair, not you. And he's horny."


"So 're we," chortled the man who had lassoed the younger. He ruffled her hair. "Won't be but a couple o' days, lass. An' y'may as well get used to it anyhow."


Within seconds, the two girls were bundled across two of the saddles and the little party—now remounted—was moseying its way toward a distant hill. Atop the hill, as on all the hills, a castle could be seen. Mangy, of course, insofar as the term "mangy" could be applied to a pile of stone. Until I saw the Baronies, I would have sworn it couldn't.


Once they were out of sight, Gwendolyn nudged me. "Let's go," she hissed. "At least we won't have to be worried about being spotted in this Barony tonight. They'll be busy with the girls."


I had been frozen with shock. The casual callousness of her words jolted me out of my paralysis.


"They're but children!" I snarled. "Bad enough, even if they weren't—but this—!"


She gave me a cold look. Her eyes were black even in daylight. In dusk, in the gloom of the thicket, they were pools of eternal night.


"What?" she snarled back. "Has the precious Ozarine suddenly discovered that 'oppression' is not an abstraction? Not something to be captured in oils?" She gestured angrily at the distant castle. "You think anything which is going to happen there tonight hasn't happened ten thousand times? Isn't happening this very night, for that matter, in other castles? That—and worse?"


She shrugged her big shoulders, like a tigress shrugging off a fly. "It happens," she continued, her voice filled less with anger now than simple contempt. "There's nothing we can do about it. And even if there were—so what? Save two children out of how many? You can't solve these things one at a time, Benvenuti. And meanwhile, your damn Ozar is coming with the Rap Sheet. I have got to get the word out."


She muscled her way past me and crawled out of the thicket. Once in the open, she stood up and glared back down at me. "Move," she commanded. "We can make good time tonight."


I obeyed. But somehow, somewhere, in the short time it took for me to gather up my stuff and make my way out of the thicket, my own decision crystallized. "Decision" is hardly the word. Some things do not have to be weighed in judgement.


"You go," I said, turning on my heels and heading off toward the castle.


"What are you doing, you idiot?"


I turned and grinned at her. I suspected the expression was murderous. I certainly hoped so.


"Providing you with a distraction."


She stared at me. I sighed heavily. "Go, Gwendolyn. We part ways, here. You're the most magnificent woman I ever met—I'm at least half in love with you, and that's easily the most foolish damn thing I've ever done in my life, not that I regret it—but we part ways here. Our loyalties are too different, just as you say. Oppression as such I can ignore, where you cannot. But—"


I made a vague gesture. "I could never paint a girl again. And I'm fond of portraying girls."


I turned away again. Then, a thought came to me, and I twisted my head back to look at her. "How many was it, that your brother strangled alongside the Comte de l'Abbatoir? Twelve knights, as I recall?"


She nodded mutely. I'm quite sure my responding grin was murderous. I certainly hope so.


"Well, I can't hope to match such a feat, of course. But I'll do my best."


A moment later I was striding off, the distant castle serving as my beacon. By now, with the sunset at an end, the castle was nothing more than a jagged shape of darkness against a starry night sky. But 'twas enough, 'twas enough.


* * *


Approaching the castle unobserved was child's play, since the Baron had left no one on watch. And a good thing that was, too, as much noise as I was making trying to clamber "silently" over a stony hill in almost complete darkness. Restraining my curses was even more difficult. By the time I reached the "ramparts," my legs were bruised and I was bleeding from several small cuts. My once-fine Ozarine trousers, never designed for such travel at all, were now not much more than tatters.


Long before I reached the ramparts, however, I was assured by the noise coming from the "castle" that silence was a moot point. As much of a racket as the Baron and his retainers were making, they couldn't have heard a bull hammering down a barn door.


I was relieved, as I drew near, that I was not hearing any girlish screams mixed in with the lot. The noise was that of buffoons at their buffoonery, not atrocities in mid-event. I had little doubt, of course, that such noises would soon be occurring. But I had made good enough time that I was almost certain the "festivities" were still just getting under way. There was this much to be said for the wretched terrain of the Baronies—a man on foot could travel almost as fast as a mounted one.


Once at the outer wall of the castle, I paused and studied it as best I could in the absence of moonlight. I found it difficult not to burst into laughter. I was no soldier myself, but having been raised by a pack of condottiere uncles I was quite familiar with the methods of Ozarine fortification. These were quite absent here. The "curtain wall" was a rickety pile of stones, not too carefully fitted. Mortar was, of course, completely absent. Here and there, a desultory attempt to construct something which might be called a "battlement" could vaguely be seen, outlined against the starblaze. But, for the most part, the wall posed no more challenge to an attacker than climbing a piles of stones.


Of course, the ragged nature of the construction did pose a challenge—a hopeless one—to what was left of my trousers. And my fancy Ozarine shoes were about the worst possible footwear to use in such a project, even if I hadn't been encumbered by my pack and easel. I was tempted to leave the pack and easel at the foot of the wall. But, after a bit of reflection, I decided that the pack and easel made a better way to carry my rapier and whip than anything else would. I could hardly climb a wall holding them in my hands, after all.


Needless to say, I picked up several more bruises and cuts on my way up the wall, but the climb itself went quickly enough. By the time I reached the top, my principal struggle was mental, not physical. Of the many lessons my uncles had drummed into me when it came to the matter of mayhem, the first and foremost was: never lose your temper.


So, I paused for a while—not long—atop the wall, taking the time to regain my composure. By the sounds coming from within the castle, the festivities were still at an early enough stage that I felt no compulsion to rush in. I could hear the girls' voices now, but they seemed raised more in sullen protest than anguish. Clearly enough, abuse was such a normal part of their lives that they simply viewed this latest outrage as something to be endured.


I used that last thought to steady my nerves and achieve that state of detached murderousness which was one more product of my uncles' rigorous training. Ludovigo's, in particular. Kill as savagely as you can, boy, as long as your blood stays cold.


Eventually, I decided it was cold enough. I slid off the wall and entered the nearest aperture. I'd call it a "door" except the term would be an insult to doors.


* * *


As I made my way through the dank corridors of the castle, I kept a wary eye out for servants. By now, I'd seen enough of the Baronies to realize that the Baron himself and his armed retainers would be entirely engrossed with their entertainment. Gwendolyn had never made any mention of a "servant class" in the Baronies, but I assumed such creatures must exist.


As it happens, I ran across only one. A stooped and furtive fellow, clad in rags, rushing from somewhere—the kitchen, I presume—carrying a wooden platter laden with meat. I shrank back into a dark alcove in the rough wall and let him pass. He did not notice me; indeed, he never so much as raised his head from the platter. Servants in the Baronies, I had no doubt, soon enough had any sense of alertness beaten out of them.


His passage did provide me with directions, however. As soon as he was out of sight, I followed him, after depositing the sack and easel in the alcove. I dare say my treads were those of a predator. I certainly hope so. By now, I was pleased to note, my inner soul had achieved my uncles' much-vaunted state of mind. I felt as cold-blooded and deadly as a viper.


The noise increased with every step I took. Soon enough, light began to appear in the corridor—hitherto illuminated by nothing more than an occasional taper in a sconce. The light was spilling around a bend up ahead, along with the sounds of carousal. The flickering nature of it led me to believe that it emanated from nothing more elaborate than a huge fireplace.


I peeked around the corner and—sure enough. Below me, down a short flight of stone steps, was the "baronial feasting hall." Insofar as that term can be applied to something which bore a closer resemblance to a bears' den. Off to my left, set into the stone wall, was a very large fireplace. Logs within it were burning lustily.


The Baron himself, clearly enough, was the man seated in a large wooden chair at the base of the steps. I deduced he was the Baron because his chair was at the head of the table and was the largest of the eight chairs gathered about. It bore a vague resemblance—very vague—to something you might call a "throne." The fact that the servant had stopped by his chair first to proffer the platter of meat added further evidence to my surmise.


"Table" I said, but the arrangement was actually more complex. Two tables—heavy, clumsy wooden things—had been abutted in an inverted "T" shape. The shorter of the tables made the base of the "T," and it was at the foot of that table that the Baron sat. On either side of that table sat one of his retainers. His chief lieutenants, I assumed. I recognized the man sitting to the Baron's right. He was the one who had led the party which captured the two girls.


The table which formed the crosspiece of the "T" was longer. Five chairs were positioned at that table, each of them occupied by one of the ruffians who passed as "feudal retainers" in the Baronies. One man sat at each end of the table, the other three positioned along its length facing the Baron.


As for the girls themselves, the older one was standing in the middle of the long table at the end, engaged in what you might call a "striptease" if the term weren't too repulsive for the event. She was practically nude by now, her face tight with fear and resentment, being rowdily encouraged by the men at her table.


The younger sister's state of disapparel I could not determine. She was perched on the Baron's lap, most of her form hidden from me by the back of the chair and the Baron's own figure.


I couldn't see the Baron's face, a fact which mattered to me not in the least. I was far too busy gauging the position of the Baron himself, his armed retainers, and their state of inebriation. One man against eight called for a battle plan of some sort.


In my favor were three things: the fact that the men in the feasting hall were not expecting to be attacked, were seated and thus not in good position to resist an attack, and were obviously well on their way toward a drunken stupor. So far along, in fact, that I was sorely tempted to wait until they were comatose from liquor. But . . . before they reached that state, the girls would have been badly abused.


Against me were also three facts: first, that the men were all armed; second, that however crude they might be, they were accustomed to physical mayhem; and, finally, that I was not too well armed myself and had no armor of any kind.


By the time I finished my assessment, the servant had placed the platter of meat on the table and was returning toward the hallway in which I lay waiting. I decided to begin with that happy circumstance, and moved silently back along the stone corridor and into the alcove. There I waited, in full shadow.


The servant scuttled past, his head down and paying little attention. As soon as he moved around the next bend in the hallway, I emerged from the alcove and hoisted the sack and easel back onto my shoulders. Then, I followed him around the bend in the hallway. I would call it a "corner" except that the term would be somewhat ridiculous. Whoever had designed and built that castle, centuries earlier, had obviously never heard of either a plumb bob or a level, much less a T square.


He was not hard to follow. His crude footwork—wooden clogs held onto his feet with leather strips—made quite a racket clumping along the rough stone floor.


Soon enough, I found myself looking into the castle's kitchen. The servant was there, digging some more meat out of a great kettle on a crude stove while a heavyset female cook clucked at him to hurry up. There was no one else in the room.


I examined the kettle and decided I was strong enough to carry it fairly easily. I thought a big pot full of boiling hot water would even the odds quite a bit. The decision made, I reached over my shoulder, drew the rapier from its hidden sheath in the easel, and strode into the kitchen.


The servant and the cook, as dull-witted as grinding menial labor usually makes people, didn't even notice me until the point of the rapier was at the man's throat.


"Silence," I commanded.


The servant's face grew pale, that of the cook grew red.


"'E's come to kill th'Baron," croaked the servant.


"Kin I watch?" asked the woman eagerly.


Well. That settled one question—whether the Baron's servants would attempt to protect their lord and master. Settled it, at least, so far as the woman was concerned. The man's face seemed to grow even paler, almost ashen, as if the prospect of the Baron's death brought him no pleasure at all.


"Stupid woman," he hissed. "We'll be blamed, wife!"


His words immediately erased the glee in the cook's expression. Her face became as pale as the man's.


I had not foreseen that complication. "Why would they blame you?" I asked.


The servant swallowed, his eyes riveted on the rapier. I withdrew the blade a few inches from his throat. After swallowing, he croaked: "Allus blame th'servants, when somethin' goes wrong. Th'other Barons'll say we's done it. Kill us both. Kill half th'peasants on the Barony, too."


Damnation.


Something of my chagrin must have shown. The cook examined me more closely. "Yer not from th'Baronies, sir," she whispered. "Me husband's got th'right of it."


My mind raced, trying to find a way out of the impasse. A thought came to me.


"What happened when Greyboar the Strangler did for the Comte de l'Abbatoir and his Knights Companion?" I demanded. "Were the Comte's servants and peasants slain afterward?"


The servant and his wife ogled me as if I were an imbecile.


"Well, o' course not!" choked the servant. "The great Grey—uh, the vile strangler—slew 'em all, you know, most flamboyant like. Couldna possibly been done by no servants. Nor no peasants, neither."


"Tied they necks into knots, 'e did!" gurgled his wife, glee returning to her face.


I thought on the problem a moment more. This time, with the mind of an artist rather than a swordsman. The solution came almost at once.


"Flamboyance, is it?" I said gaily. "I dare say I can manage that."


I lowered the rapier. Clearly enough, there was no longer any need to threaten them. I glanced around the kitchen, seeing several large and crudely made cabinets. "Do you have flour?" I asked the cook.


She nodded mutely. "Lots of it?" Again, she nodded.


"Excellent. Get it out." I eased the sack off my shoulders and rummaged in it for a moment, before withdrawing the bullwhip. Then, I began removing my blouse.


The husband was gaping at me. "I assume the Baron had enemies," I stated confidently.


The servant seemed to have been struck dumb. But his wife, returning from a cabinet with a barrel in her arms, chuckled harshly. "Plenty!"


"Did he kill any of them? Especially, any that were of approximately my height and build?"


She set the barrel of flour down on a nearby bench, straightened, and examined me closely. "None so purty as you. But Sieur Henri de Pouilleux were as tall, iff'n no so broad-shouldered."


"He'll do. How did the Baron kill him?"


"Stabt 'im inna back, 'ow else? Th'sword went clean t'rough 'im."


"How else, indeed," I agreed cheerfully. "Clean through him, you say? Better and better!"


By now I was bare from the waist up. I seized the husband by the scruff of the neck and shook him a bit, to clear his head. "Come to your senses, damn you! I mean you no harm." I motioned toward the barrel with my hand. "Start smearing that flour all over me. Everything except my hair."


His jaw snapped shut. A moment later, he hastened to obey. While he did so, I turned back to the cook.


"Some meat paste. Cold—lukewarm at least—not hot." Fortunately, she was either quicker-witted than her husband or less confused, so I was not forced to shake her as well. By the time her husband was halfway through the process of coating me with flour, the cook had returned with some greasy meat paste on a wooden spatula.


By then, my plans were made. "Smear it here, and here," I commanded, pointing to a spot just above my kidney and on the corresponding side of my stomach, just opposite. "I rather doubt that's exactly where the Baron stabbed the Sieur, but it hardly matters. I dare say the surviving eyewitness will not remember the fine details."


She smeared the meat paste over the spots indicated. I couldn't see the result on my back, but the one on my belly made quite a gruesome-looking imitation of a wound. In dim lighting, at least—which was all there was in that misbegotten castle.


"And that's it!" I exclaimed softly. "The scene is set."


The cook and the servant were back to ogling me. I gave them a cheerful smile—it must have looked ghastly, my face covered with flour—and dug into my pack again. This time, retrieving a poignard in a sheath which I thrust into my belt.


I gestured at my sack and easel, lying on the floor. "Do watch over them, would you? And I'd suggest you clean up the evidence while I'm gone. This shouldn't take long."


I spun and bounded into the hallway leading back to the feasting hall. I saw no reason for any further delay.


I paused briefly, at the entrance to the feasting, simply to assure myself that no great change had taken place. The girl doing the striptease on the table was now completely nude; the sister in the Baron's lap seemed even more unhappy than ever; the retainers drunker. But other than that, the scene remained essentially the same.


All of which, I was delighted to see, came together quite perfectly. I took but a moment to assess the rest of the enterprise, and was then bounding down the stairs. I would say "gleefully," but I assure you I maintained my cold blood throughout. Even my uncles would have approved.


"Revenge!" I bellowed. "Face me, Baron! The Sieur Henri has returned!"


Bullfighting is, of course, a popular sport in Ozarae. And while my uncles disapprove of the pastime, they did not fail to train me a bit in that art as well. I dare say my rapier went right through the back of the Baron's neck and severed his spine as neatly as any matador could have done.


That splendid enterprise having been achieved, I moved on to the next. Being as I am right-handed, the choice was obvious. Two quick steps brought me past the Baron's skewered form, gushing blood onto his platter. I now stood on open floor to his left. The girl, I was pleased to note, sprang off his lap immediately. The lieutenant seated just in front of me was gaping drunkenly at the Baron's throat, from which a good foot of my blade protruded. The man across from him—the girls' original captor—was staring at me as if he was looking at a ghost.


Which, of course, he was.


"And you as well!" I bellowed. "Vengeance is mine!" I had no idea, of course, if the lieutenant had played any part in the Sieur de Pouilleux's demise. But it hardly seemed to matter. In the Baronies, I was quite certain, revenge was a sloppy affair.


The lieutenant's mouth opened and he began to squall in terror. The squall was cut short by the tip of my whip, coiling around his neck like a boa. I seized the handle with both hands and, with a great and titanic heave, jerked him right out of his chair and sprawled both him and the table onto the man seated before me. The whole lot ended up in a very nice and tidy jumble.


I am quite a powerful man, as I believe I've mentioned. As the captor more or less sailed across the table, I heard his neck break as cleanly as even my uncle Larue could have asked.


Three down—two, at least, and the third was tangled up—five to go. The problem now, of course, was disentangling the whip. Normally I can accomplish that with a flick of the wrist, but in this instance the whip was enmeshed with two bodies, one of which was writhing on the floor with a corpse and a table on top of him.


I gave a quick glance at the five men at the other table and decided I had time to kill two birds with one stone. As it were. All five retainers at the far table were still seated, like so many statues. Their eyes were wide, their mouths agape, their faces pale. Clearly enough, they had no doubt at all that the ghost of the Sieur was present. If they even noticed the fine spray of flour I was shedding all about, they were too dull-witted to understand what it signified. Or mistook the flour mist, in the flickering light from the fireplace, as a ghostly aura.


I dropped the handle of the whip, knelt, and smote the other lieutenant a mighty blow of my fist. I suspect I broke his jaw. Even if I hadn't, he'd play no role in the ensuing events—other than being a witness when the servants needed one.


That done, it was the work of only a few seconds to retrieve the whip. By the time I advanced upon the remaining five men, they were finally scrambling to their feet. As I had counted on, their state of drunkenness was impeding their reactions as well as compounding their superstitious horror. One of them, I saw with delight—no, two!—had urinated in their trousers.


There seemed no purpose to varying a successful tune. "Revenge is mine!" I cried, springing toward them. "The Sieur Henri!"


The one closest to me, at my end of the long table, spilled his chair in rising. "Have mercy!" he shrieked, fumbling at his sword.


By then, I had the whip handle in my left hand and the poignard in my right—held by the blade, ready for throwing. For an instant, I hesitated. The man's throat was unprotected, but made a chancy target. The chest—


I decided that his mangy "armor"—lacquered leather strips, with only a scrap of iron here and there—would pose no obstacle to my heavy and finely-made poignard. Neither would the sternum beyond. Not for someone like me, trained by my uncles.


Nor did it. The poignard's blade went right through the lot as neatly as you could ask, piercing the heart and not stopping until the hilt struck what was left of the armor. The impact knocked the man flat on his posterior. He sat there, staring at me in shock for a moment. Then, coughed a great deal of blood and collapsed altogether.


Four down, four to go. From here, of course, the enterprise ascended in difficulty. The four survivors were now on their feet, swords in hand. All of them were bellowing with fear, true, but men such as those will react with violence to almost anything. I was counting on their superstitious terror to lessen the odds, and the liquor they'd consumed to dull their alertness—which, judging from the large amounts of said liquids spilling all over the table and floor from upended flagons, was none too "alert."


Still, there were four of them, one of me, and they were armed and armored. Two of them even had the presence of mind to seize the table and upend it, clearing an open space in which to fight. The girl atop the table leapt off nimbly just as it went over, landing on her feet and scampering aside. I heard her shouting something at her younger sister, but didn't catch the words.


The first thing to do, needless to say, was to break up the rough "formation" which the four men were taking. As drunk and terrified as they were, they had enough fighting instinct to form a line.


"A maneuver!" I shouted. "Against de Pouilleux? Useless! Revenge is mine!"


To be successful, "maneuvers" presuppose a certain amount of celerity and nimbleness. Neither of which was a strong suit of such fellows—and both of which were a strong suit of mine. (Again, you will recognize, the result of my uncles' rigorous regimen.)


So it was no great feat to scamper around them to the left, double up the whip, and then use it two-handed as something of a flexible club to hammer the man closest to me into a state which approximated senselessness. "Turning their flank," as it were.


My victim seemed a bit shocked by my tactics. Hard to tell, of course. I suspect the man was so stupid that the tactics of a tortoise would have shocked him. In any event, his sentiments were short-lived. A doubled-up bullwhip lashing a man's arms and face—knocking his sorry excuse for a helmet askew in the process—will daze even a genius. His neck then exposed, I danced back two steps, unfurled the full length of the whip, and cracked it once. The armored tip of the weapon opened his jugular vein as well as a razor could have done it.


From there I was expecting the affair to turn desperate. A whip is a dazzling weapon, true enough, but not really very practical in a melee facing determined opponents. It simply requires too much room, either on a battlefield or—more to the point—in a feasting hall. So I abandoned it, but not before one final lash coiled around one of the retainer's legs and, with a jerk, upended him on the floor.


Two left, now, and a third out of the action for at least a moment or so. That left me, wearing nothing but tattered clothes and a coating of flour, unarmed, facing two armored and sword-wielding opponents. As I said, a desperate affair.


Except—


"Facing determined opponents" proved to be a misnomer. The two surviving retainers, as brutal as they might be, were not the stuff of heroes. They ogled me, ogled the carnage—blood and wine and ale and shattered furniture everywhere—ogled their cursing fellow rolling around on the floor frantically trying to disentangle the whip from his knees . . .


Then dropped their swords and raced for the entrance to the feasting hall, shrieking with terror. I stared after them, too astonished to react immediately.


Along the way, the ruffians passed the two sisters huddled against the wall. The older girl stuck out her leg. A little leg, it was, but it was enough to send the first of them sprawling onto the stone steps. His companion trampled him under on his way up the stairs.


That callous disregard for comradeship proved to be fruitless. When the man reached the stop of the stairs there was a sudden flurry of motion in the darkness of the corridor bend beyond. I saw him stiffen, his head jerking, and heard what sounded like a little gasp. Then he turned and staggered back down, clutching his throat. Blood gushed from between his fingers.


Again, when he reached his still-prostrate fellow trying to rise, he trampled him under. That effort seemed to use up his strength, however, and he collapsed in a heap. His fellow was just getting to his knees, shaking his head to clear the daze, when Gwendolyn came down the stairs and used that great cleaver of hers to sever his spine with one blow. She then stalked over to the man still trying to disentangle the whip from his legs, dropped to one knee, jerked his head back, and practically cut his throat to the bone. All this, somehow, without getting a drop of blood on her.


I stared at her. She stared at me. Then she burst into laughter.


"God, you look ridiculous!"


I spread my arms and studied myself ruefully. "I don't suppose there'd be a laundry anywhere in this castle?" I complained. "What's left of my clothes looks like a butcher's apron. Between the flour and the blood . . ."


Gwendolyn began cleaning her blade on the corpse's clothing. "A laundry?" she chuckled. "Not likely."


She sheathed the cleaver, rose, and pointed to the corpse. "You'll have to make do with odds and ends of their clothing. Your own's pretty well ruined."


I studied the garments in question with considerable distaste, foreseeing a problem with lice. "I'm not giving up my shoes," I grumbled. "Not for those things."


Again, she chuckled. The sound seemed oddly forced. When I looked at her, she was shaking her head and her eyes seemed even darker than usual.


"You are absolutely insane, Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini," she whispered. "Also magnificent."


I moved toward her, wanting an embrace. And so, I think, did she. But she placed a hand on my chest and held me off. "Please," she whispered. "Not now. I think I'm half in love with you myself—more than half, to tell the truth—but it's still insane. Besides, my leather would look silly with flour all over it."


Abruptly she turned away and studied the two girls. The sisters had not left the hall, but they were standing on their feet now. Standing and staring at us, their eyes as wide as saucers.


"Warn your families," commanded Gwendolyn. "You'll have to stay hidden for a while."


They nodded jerkily. Gwendolyn strode over and studied the one surviving retainer closely. Then turned away, apparently satisfied.


"He won't recover consciousness for hours. Plenty of time to finish setting the scene." She studied me again, this time very approvingly. "I wouldn't have thought you could be such a clever bastard. It's almost scary."


She jerked her head toward the entrance. "I assume you made arrangements with the servants? That's the reason for your weird appearance?"


I nodded. By then, the two girls had advanced and were standing not far from Gwendolyn. But both of them still had their eyes fixed upon me.


"Why'd you do it?" asked the older.


* * *


Gwendolyn explained. When she was finished, the two sisters were practically hopping up and down in fury.


"You were on a critical mission for The Cause and this—this—" The youngest girl was pointing a finger of outrage and accusation at me.


"J'Accuse!" shrilled the older, pointing an identical finger.


"Rampant petty-boojoy individualism!" hollered the younger.


"Sabotaging the class struggle for the sake of romantic sentimentalism!" hollered the older.


The two little fingers never wavered in their condemnation. I gaped at them. Gwendolyn burst into laughter.


"Welcome to Grotum, Benvenuti," she gasped. "Where—ah—we take our ideology seriously."


The two sisters lowered their fingers. "Certainly do," they muttered fiercely.


I fear I was still gaping. The youngest sister squinted at me. "What's his problem? Is he a halfwit or something?"


"He's from Ozar."


Again, the two fingers. "Imperialist stooge!" shrilled the younger. "The imperialist himself!" countered her older and wiser sister. "In the flesh!"


Gwendolyn cleared her throat. "He did rescue the two of you, you might remember."


The two fingers lowered; then, wiped little noses. "Well," said the younger. "That's true." A moment later, grudgingly: "Thanks."


The older was made of sterner stuff. "Still an outrage," she muttered. "I'd call it treason to the revolution except"—she eyed me suspiciously—"you probably never was part of it nohow."


"Certainly not," said Gwendolyn firmly. "Enough of this, girls. Benvenuti meant well, and that's enough. You're too damn young to be making ideological pronouncements anyway."


The two sisters transferred their suspicious squints to her.


"Is that so?" demanded the younger.


"And just who exactly are you?" echoed her sister crossly.


"I'm Gwendolyn Greyboar. Which is a name I'd just as soon you forgot because—"


She got no further. The suspicious looks had vanished, replaced by—I will swear to it!—the saucer-wide eyes of sheer adulation. Then came the squeals of hero worship.


Heroine worship, I should say. None of those girlish peals of enthusiasm were directed my way.


"Gwendolyn Greyboar! I can't believe it!"


"Right HERE! In the FLESH!"


On and on and on. They even managed to rouse the unconscious retainer. Not for long, of course. I was in quite a foul enough mood by then to have broken a horse's jaw.


* * *


And so it was, in the hours that passed thereafter, after we left the castle and the peasants in the area heard the news, that Gwendolyn was surrounded by a mob at all times. Pestering her with questions about the latest news of the revolution; asking her to clarify fine points of doctrine; and, as often as not, just staring at her as if she were an icon come to life.


As for myself, I was largely ignored. Save, of course, for never-ending suspicious squints and the occasional pointing finger of warning and accusation.


About noon the next day, the servant and the cook were seen carrying the surviving retainer in a mule-drawn cart toward the nearest Baron in the area. The retainer had regained his senses, more or less, but his jaw was swathed in a crude bandage.


The servant and cook were playing their part to perfection, according to the peasant who brought the news. Repercussions were not to be feared. Clearly enough, no one in the Baronies not privy to the truth would have any doubt that the spirit of the Sieur de Pouilleux had committed the massacre. Superstition was as common to the area as potatoes.


None of this, of course, allayed the peasantry's hostile attitude toward me. As Gwendolyn and I made to leave the area, the parting words of the common folk were spoken more or less in a chorus.


"Dump the imperialist, Gwendolyn! Beware the Ozarine snake!" And so on, and so forth. Quite tedious, it was.


* * *


Once we were finally out of sight, I gave vent to my spleen. At some length, as I recall.


When I was done, Gwendolyn smiled. Then, stopped me in my tracks with a hand on my shoulders. "Don't pout. For whatever it's worth, I don't think you're an imperialist snake. A dinosaur, maybe, but not a snake."


"Well, that's something," I muttered. "Progress of sorts, I guess."


I started to say something else but was cut off by a fierce kiss. A quick one, true, but fierce. The sensation which went down my spine was equally fierce.


"Be quiet," she whispered. "Let's just get to the Mutt. Then . . . we'll see what happens."


As usual, the damn woman was decisive and quick-moving. I hadn't time to recover from that incredible kiss before she was striding off. "Now, move! No time for your sluggard Ozarine ways, Benvenuti the Gallant! You've just made the Baronies even more dangerous than usual."


* * *


That night, as we lay together in another thicket, Gwendolyn's hands upon me were softer than they had been before. Almost caressing, now; and my own, the same. The touches were not those of lovemaking. The tight quarters would have made that quite impossible, leaving aside anything else. But if she—and I, for that matter—still thought our feelings for each other were well-nigh insane, neither of us would any longer pretend they didn't exist.


* * *


When we emerged from the thicket at sundown the next day, Gwendolyn studied me for a moment. The furs and assorted leather rags I was now clad in seemed to meet her approval. But when her eyes fell upon my feet, she chuckled and shook her head.


"When we reach the Mutt, we really have to get you a decent pair of boots. Those—things—you're wearing are almost worn out, and besides, I'd be too embarrassed to be seen with you. Me, Gwendolyn Greyboar, cozy with an Ozarine down to his pointed patent leather shoes! No, it just won't do."


Back | Next
Framed