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Authors: Patricia Veryan

Dedicated Villain

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THE DEDICATED VILLAIN

Patricia Veryan

Book VI of “The Golden Chronicles”

St. Martin's Press
New York

 

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Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page

 

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Dedicated with respect, gratitude, and humble affection to the memory of Mr. Jeffery Farnol, whose books provided me with lifelong enjoyment, and without whose inspiration and guidance my own works might never have been written.

PROLOGUE
Flanders, August 1743

The raindrops, plinking fitfully onto the sagging roof of the hut, provided the only source of distraction. Roland Fairleigh Mathieson, who for many and various reasons at present went by the name of Otton, lay very still, his right hand tight gripped in the straw of his crude bed, and his eyes closed as he shut out pain and thirst and concentrated instead on the uneven sounds and wove them into the melody of the little song that drifted aimlessly through his mind.

Come live with me (plink, plink, plink) and be my love, (plink, plink)

And we will some new (plink, plink, plink) pleasures prove (plink)

Of golden sands, and crystal brooks, (plink, plink)

With silken
…

Golden sands and crystal brooks … Would he ever see such sights again? England in the springtime. Clean yellow-green leaves, fresh bracing air from off the sea, cheerful happy people, warm sunlight … He shivered convulsively as a dank draught stirred the straw and winced as he jarred his broken collarbone.
Lord, but he was so damnably thirsty, and the water jar had been empty since breakfast time—or what he guessed to have been breakfast time. His watch and cardcase and Bond's watch and cardcase had both gone to the peasants who lived on the small farm and scratched a living from the flat Flanders land. François and Madame, who had taken him in, a half-dead enemy with a broken head and a musket ball in him, and with half a dozen French hussars in hot pursuit. A terrible risk had François and Madame taken for the sake of avarice. A risk they must have repented, for they had stuck him out here three, or was it four days ago? They had tended him when they thought of it, roughly and grumblingly, and had fed him scraps of food and left him a daily jug of brackish water. But he'd had not a drop since early this morning, so that he was nigh shrivelled up with thirst and tantalized by the rain that splashed on the roof only a few feet away.

His left arm was itching fiendishly, but if he reached across to scratch it, his other flea bites would start to itch again. He gritted his teeth and fought the need until it became an obsession so that he moved too fast, and pain clawed its savage way through him. The verminous hut faded into a merciful dizziness that blotted out both pain and itching for a little while …

“We've taken Worms, thank God, but rumour has it that those damned Frenchies are massing in Flanders …” The loud voice echoed through the mists of memory, and he could see Major Cunningham's dark eyes glittering with zeal. “I want two of you young fellows to volunteer for a reconnaissance of the area … Splendid! You then, Otton, since you speak the language like a native, and—you, Bond. Good luck, and Godspeed. And especially—speed! We must know at the earliest possible moment what the bastards are about …”

The major's voice faded and, sighing, Otton returned to the harsh reality of this rainy afternoon and a new distraction. A busy rustling amongst the straw. His dark head, swathed in the dirty bandage, turned very slightly. Even with caution it was a painful effort and exhausting. His suspicion however, was verified,
for he perceived that the Comte de Flanders was back and once more heading at an ungainly but determined run for the mouldy crust of bread that was the only bulwark against starvation.

Otton relaxed his grip on the straw and reached out gropingly until he detected his tiny pile of ammunition. Taking up one of the miniature pellets of wax, which he had gathered from the tallow drippings, he deposited it on his ribs, took a bead on the large cockroach, and flicked a skeletal finger. His missile whizzed at the enemy, and the comte scampered madly to the side. Otton informed the insect in a faint but pithy voice of his ancestry, and reached for another wax pellet. How he could have managed to drop the crust so that it rolled out of reach, he didn't know, but sometimes he seemed to drift in and out of this unending nightmare so that it was difficult to tell where dreaming ended and reality began.

There was no dreaming his thirst, however. That was all too real. Surely François would come soon? Or Madame? A fine madame she was—poor creature. More like sixty than forty; scrawny and bent and faded long before her time, stinking of dirt and sweat, soured by hardship and poverty. He'd never heard her speak without a whine. Although he'd not expected to be nursed by the woman, she could at least have washed him once in a while or tried to make him more comfortable, rather than abandoning him to this cold and verminous hut with only the fleas and cockroaches for company and not a soul to speak a kind word when the pain was so bad.

He grinned in faint embarrassment to so indulge his sense of ill-usage, but the grin faded when he recollected that the card-cases had both been of gold, and together with the timepieces, should have brought a pretty penny. François and Madame had been more than well paid, and could have been kinder, blast it all! For all their hard-hearted treatment of him, however, one or the other usually came at least twice a day. He'd not seen hide nor hair of either one since last evening when François had come in to grudgingly refill the water jug and put down the
stale bread and the dried up hunk of cheese. Nor, now that he considered the matter, had he heard the whine of Madame's shrill voice or the grumbling discontent of François. Had they perhaps made off with their profits and abandoned him? His thick dark brows drew together, the shadowed black eyes narrowed with anxiety. If they
had
gone, he would surely die here. Bond had sworn to come back, but poor Bill Bond might never have reached the safety of the Allied lines …

He shivered again, and, spurred by a sudden frenzy of apprehension, worked his right elbow under him and dragged himself upward. A rusty lance seemed to rip through him, and he groaned a curse, but managed not to fall back. Drawing a deep breath, he shouted for probably the tenth time that long weary day, “
Hallo
? …
Monsieur François
?, …
Madame
…?” His straining ears could detect not the faintest sound of human life. Panicking, he advised his hosts in somewhat disjointed but fluent French of all the flaws in their characters and of his desperate need for help. But when he was panting and had slumped down, exhausted, there was still no sound, no sign.

They must have gone, then. They had abandoned him to die of thirst and starvation. But an Englishman must not die in a dreadful little vermin-ridden hut on a flat and waterlogged Flanders plain … He was, of course, not really an Englishman because he was half French. Still, he was the grandson of a duke … Not officially, since he was born, as they say, on the wrong side of the blanket. But even if he was not welcomed at the house of his noble relative (nor in any other noble house, come to that!) to die here, all alone, was not the thing.

One might have hoped, he thought aggrievedly, that Thomas would have bestirred himself and helped a little. Thomas had been
Maman's
favourite of the saints, and it was to him that she had at the end commended the care of her beloved son. Roland had been grateful for this effort, but he had discovered that while St. Thomas sometimes managed surprisingly well, he could not always be relied upon. This appeared
to be just such an occasion, wherefore, he must fend for himself.

He eyed the door speculatively. “You may think,
Monsieur Éclat
,” he told it, “that I cannot reach you. But—you shall see!” It was a few feet distant; he could manage that surely, if he really tried. “Up, Roland Fairleigh Mathieson!” he muttered. “Up, you lazy lout!” He eased himself onto his right elbow again, swearing in both French and English when his head vied with his shoulder as to the degree of anguish it could inflict. At least, his right arm was workable, and if he could just drag himself to the door, he would be able to drink the raindrops … ‘Try! … Oh, blast and dammitall! Try … again …'

It was late afternoon when he opened his eyes. He crawled on, inch by miserable inch, resting his thickly bearded face on his outstretched arm when consciousness reeled; sometimes shouting curses at François and Madame, once hearing himself calling to Bill, and, as the light was fading, feeling his fingers touch the rough wood of the door. He pushed at it feebly, and it gave not a fraction.
Mon Dieu
, but he was thirsty! So damnably thirsty! His mouth and throat felt as though stuffed with burning sand … And the blessed rain was pouring down—scant inches away. 'Twas said that men deprived of water went mad before they died … God! With all his remaining strength he fought again to reach the doorlatch, but he was too weak, and he gave up at last, sobbing with helplessness. The humour that had sustained him was fading, his courage failing. Before his eyes now was
Maman's
beautiful, concerned face. In his ears, the gentle murmur of her beloved voice …

“Roly! Roly—my poor old lad! Roly … Is this how that rascally pair served you then? Here, dear fellow—here!”

That was not
Maman!
A hand was holding a flask to his lips. Wonderfully cold and clean water was quenching that hellish thirst, gentle hands were easing his awkward position. He peered upward and through the blinding mists discerned a square, bronzed young face, a pair of blue eyes usually filled
with laughter, but just now holding a mixture of pity and wrath.

Emotion played havoc with Roland's weakness, and he croaked in a gratitude that defied expression, “Bill … you—you damned maniac … ! You came … back!”

“Well, of course I did,” declared Lieutenant William Bond, his voice rather husky. “Blast you, Roly! Did you think I'd leave you here to—to luxuriate in this curst overpriced hotel … ?”

Roland Fairleigh Mathieson, sometimes known as Otton, was quite unable to reply, and the mists that blurred his eyes now, were thankful tears.

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BOOK: Dedicated Villain
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