Authors: Gene Doucette
“What a shame!” Margritte said. “Surely, sir, we can wait until my husband arrives. He so wanted to see our young guest off properly.”
“I am sorry, madam, it really cannot be helped,” the man said. Looking right at the duke he added, “If he does not come with me
I am afraid there will be
deaths. Surely he would not want that.”
“Oh!” Margritte exclaimed. “That
an emergency. Well then, I will extend your apologies to my husband, Mr…?”
“Sinclair, madam.” His words were all for the lady of the household but his eyes were all for the duke.
“Yes, of course, Mr. Sinclair.”
“Such an emergency, I will go with you, of course,” the duke said. His voice was thin and his words trembled on their way past his lips. “Straight away. Of course.”
I turned to ask John to check at the window for an idea of the kind of force that had arrived with Sinclair, but he was already doing that. Whether he heard me ask him in the future or had decided to do it on his own, it hardly mattered.
I stepped next to the duke and put my hand on his arm. “
Sir, are these the men you were expecting?
” I asked, in Hungarian.
He looked at me. He was surprised to hear Hungarian, and he looked afraid, but the fear wasn’t for me. “
They are not. But it is all right. There will be a ransom and that is all.
He shook his arm out of my grasp and started across the room. The guests—all tittering and muttering—stepped aside for him.
“What’s going on?” Joanne asked. It was obvious to her only that John and I were alarmed. Before I could answer, John had left the window to stand in the middle of the room, putting himself directly between Sinclair and the duke.
“You have to get all of these people out,” I said to Joanne. “Through the kitchen, get them into the servant passages. They should be safe in the walls until your father arrives.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will in a moment. Hurry!”
“I don’t believe the duke should go with you, Mr. Sinclair,” John said.
Margritte was appropriately scandalized. “Why Mr. Corrigan! Please, don’t…”
Then Sinclair drew his sword. The guests gasped almost as one, and backed away as quickly as they could from the man with the weapon at the front of the room. All except for John Corrigan, who continued to walk toward the danger.
I remembered the last thing Cornelius said to me that night so long ago in the study in London:
War isn’t something we want the women to understand.
Now somebody’s war had found those women, and John and I were the only soldiers around to do anything about it.
The time for madness was over, whether or not we were ready.
“I do not know who you might be, sir,” Sinclair said. “But I know what an unarmed man looks like. I wish not to draw your blood before these fine people, but I shall.”
Do not do this!
” the duke shouted. “I will go with him!” He was ready to run to Sinclair.
I held him back. I didn’t know what John’s gambit was, exactly, but if he thought it was worse to let our foreign friend go quietly I was ready to support that claim.
“Here I am, then,” John said, spreading his arms wide. “Get through me and then you may have your prize.”
Sinclair shrugged. “Very well.”
He lunged forward at the exposed chest of the man before him. An instant before the blade struck true, John leaned and turned his torso until parallel with the weapon. The women in the room gasped, one screamed, and all of them backed further away. I realized I had been holding my breath.
“Joanne!” I barked. She nodded, and ran to the kitchen door. Collected there were several of the servants, whom she began to engage in quiet conversation. She was going to need their help.
The Frenchman—I was nearly positive now we were dealing with the French—nearly fell over, so startled was he to have missed. He muttered a curse and swung again, and found nothing but air.
After the third failed attempt to drop John Corrigan, the man behind Sinclair ran out of the room. I doubted it was cowardice.
“John,” I said. “How many?”
“I counted twelve horses,” he said.
Joanne returned to my side, having left the ushering of the guests to the staff. I was still holding the duke, who had stopped trying to struggle free and was now approximately as mystified by what was happening as Sinclair.
“Joanne, get him out too,” I said.
“You’re only two men!” She exclaimed. “You can’t hold them off alone, come with us!”
“You’re right. To attempt it would be madness. But don’t worry, we’re already madmen. We can do this. Trust me.”
She looked into my eyes, beautiful and angry and defiant, probing—I guess—for some kind of weakness of resolve.
“All right, fine!” she said, finally, grabbing the duke’s arm. “Come with me, my lord. Don’t argue, or I’ll put you over my knee.”
“I don’t… understand. Knee?” he stammered, as she dragged him off.
Meanwhile, Mr. Sinclair was still trying as hard as he could to damage Mr. Corrigan, and failing utterly. It would have been easier to pin water with a fork.
“Stand still!” Sinclair shouted. He fell back and lowered his sword, dumbfounded at having missed so spectacularly so often.
“Why would he do that, when as you’ve already pointed out, he doesn’t have a weapon?” I asked.
“And who might you be?”
“I’m nobody of import,” I said.
I glanced once more over my shoulder. Joanne and the duke had gotten out, and so had all of the guests. “I’m only another unarmed man you will have to kill in order to take your ransom.”
“Ransom? This is not for ransom. That boy is leverage, do you have any idea who I represent?”
“No. Don’t really care. John, do you care?”
“I am fully unconcerned.”
“There you are. Neither of us cares. What we do care about is that the young man you’ve come for is a guest of this house, and as the lord of the manor is absent we will have to hold you off at least until he arrives. Which should be soon, I believe.”
About 90% of this was bravado on my part, and the other 10% was just my trying to stall. I hadn’t been in an actual fight for a few years, and the last time I picked up a sword it was to defend a lot of people against an imaginary dragon. I had every reason to think my skills were still intact, but my familiarity with reality was self-evidently horrible.
“The master of this house is going to find a building full of dead women and children if you foolish men do not stand aside and hand him over!” Sinclair said.
I looked behind us at the empty room. “Alas, it appears we have no duke to hand over.”
Sinclair laughed, in part because he was genuinely amused by what I had to say, but mostly because as I was saying it eleven men were entering his side of the banquet area, turning a two-on-one swordfight into a two-on-twelve situation that was unpleasantly different.
“We shall find him,” he said. “It won’t take long.” He stepped back, and to his men said, “The boy went through the servant door. Rush these fools and let’s be on our way.”
The banquet hall, as I said, was large, but not quite wide enough to allow for twelve men with swords to attack us at once. There was plenty of room for six at a time, though, and given we had no weapons, that six should have been perfectly sufficient.
“John, I could really use a sword,” I said. “Can you get one for me?”
where you are,” he said.
I was only a few paces behind him, and to his left. Any frontal assault would reach me only seconds after reaching him, but he told me to stay where I was so I did, even when three men came charging directly at me. This was something of an act of faith on my part, to put it mildly. If I stepped back they could either surround John or just continue past us to the servant door. But staying where I was with nothing in my defense but harsh language wasn’t going to work well either. It might have been different if any of the men appeared wanting when it came to basic swordsmanship, but I didn’t see any weaknesses on first sight.
While I tried to work out all of my possible defensive options that didn’t include losing a limb, John lunged forward to meet the first man on his side, ducking under a clumsy overhand, spinning around and driving his elbow into the man’s throat. While the man gasped for air, John slammed his forearm across the swordsman’s wrist, which jarred loose the sword. As the blade fell to the floor, John stepped away from the now-crumpling attacker and kicked the weapon in exactly the right way, catching the flat of the blade just past the cross-guard. It flew over the heads of the men who were seconds from removing many parts of my body. I caught it mid-air with enough time to parry the first attack.
“Thank you, John!” I shouted.
I went to work fighting off the three men, which even with a sword was not at all an easy thing. They had some skills, and while I had quite a few talents of my own I couldn’t see what they were going to do before they did it like my friend could.
I was holding my own, in other words, but that was about all. John was doing something else completely. It seemed that being able to see a short way into the future, while making it extremely difficult to hold a conversation, really was an extraordinarily good talent in combat.
After dropping the man whose sword I was using he danced his way around the next three men confronting him, had managed to get two of them to mortally wound each other, and still hadn’t bothered to get a sword for himself. He was always right where they wanted him to be up until they reached him, and then he was somewhere else. It wasn’t even that he was moving quickly, only that when he did move, it was in the exact right way, every single time. Sometimes it seemed as if he wasn’t even looking at them. He was looking at where they were going to be, or at something else entirely. Two or three times, he was looking at me.
“Reggie, on my mark,” he said at one point.
“On your mark what?” I asked. I was getting pinned by the men on me and didn’t have time to catch any more things he felt like throwing my way.
I fell to my knees. A sword swing that would have been a killing blow whistled just above my head. It was a fourth man I didn’t know was there, and he would have done me in. Instead his blow killed one of the other men and left his underside exposed, so when I stood again it was with my sword slid under his ribcage.
“Thanks again, John,” I said, pulling out my sword. To the men before me I asked, “Now who’s next?”
The fighting continued, to the enormous frustration of the attacking parties—including no doubt Mr. Sinclair, although I couldn’t see him. I had the two men at my feet, and John had three, plus one wounded man that was mostly just getting in the way of everyone else. We’d likely ruined the floor with blood, none of which was ours. We had also damaged a few of the chairs, and the table had a knife sticking out of it for some reason. I didn’t know where it had come from, but I wasn’t watching John all that closely, for obvious reasons. Maybe someone had tried to use it on him.
The most important detail, aside from neither of us dying, was that nobody had gotten past.
“Enough!” came a shout from the back of the hallway. The men in front of us fell back. I was nearly exhausted, and thankful to whomever had decided to call a halt to the attack. But then the men parted and I saw Sinclair in the center of the main hall, holding a crossbow.
A crossbow was bad, yet if it was going to come down to projectile weaponry I was a little glad not to see a rifle in his hands. As I said before, guns didn’t make a whole lot of sense unless you had a lot of them and an infantry, but they still represented a new and mysterious threat. I could understand a crossbow; I’d been seeing them for centuries. Guns were smelly and terrifying. Also, firing one indoors was a great way to deafen everybody there.
In short, I was glad Sinclair had stuck with something reliable with which to murder us.
“Reginald,” John said, very calmly. “You’re going to have to stand behind me now, please.”
“I’m aware of the capabilities of a crossbow, thank you. Please.”
I stepped to my right, which put Corrigan between the weapon and I. Sinclair found this amusing.
“You are going to catch the bolts now?” Sinclair asked.
John leaned over and picked up one of the swords on the floor. “Not precisely.”
Sinclair sighed and lowered the crossbow. “Sir,” he said. “I say this with all honesty. You are a fine soldier, and clearly an honorable man. I’m
an honorable man, and so if you forced I will drop you with this, and then I will kill the man behind you, and anyone else who is feeling honorable this evening, and then I will get who I came here for. I would much prefer it if you stepped aside and let me do this thing.”