Hope you’ve had/are having a great holiday! Here is a belated Christmas present for you. Enjoy.
Hooves blurred into a thumping drone as they battered the ground beneath him, enough to pierce the ringing in his ears. Etienne stabbed his fingers into his palms as he clutched onto the reins, certain that to loosen his grip by even a hair meant being dismembered, probably in incremental portions, by the pack of would-be wolfhounds trailing behind him. Surprisingly uncouth of them to have reacted this adversely to watching their munificent leader be stabbed. Impoliteness aside, they were damned dogged in their pursuit, and it was by only the most bizarre of happenings that Etienne had managed to extricate himself from their custody in the first place.
He had known, even as he had reached into his vest pocket back in St. Iliane, that he and his men had no chance of escaping that room, let alone the town. They were surrounded, unarmed, and seated, hardly a prime tactical position. The best Etienne could have hoped for was a negotiated surrender and exactly what Le Taureau had insisted upon – that they march away half-clothed and humiliated. Igniting a confrontation under those circumstances was, in a word, idiotic.
But Etienne’s ego had demanded it. He was already humiliated. Mortified that men he had dismissed as simpletons had outsmarted him, that his mind was so befuddled by thoughts of Nightingale that he had lost his perception and his ruthlessness. And, on hearing a crude ruffian like Le Taureau drool over her, inflamed by a sudden and uncontrollable flash of jealousy. Base emotions that he had long ago learned to master and keep out of his business, driving him once again as if he were a pimply adolescent incensed by the appearance of a rival for a young lady’s affections.
Even now, clinging to this horse’s neck and racing away from St. Iliane and Le Taureau’s men, he had wits enough about him to understand how stupid and shortsighted he’d been, and that he was alive only thanks to chance – thanks to the unique, and frankly, inexplicable properties of the silvered metal from which his dagger had been forged.
Metal made no sound scraping against cotton as Etienne snatched the dagger from its concealed sheath. But everyone heard the crunch and squish and ensuing scream as he plunged it straight through Le Taureau’s hand. As the dagger severed the last of the flesh on its downward thrust and cleaved through to embed itself in the wood of the table beneath, a tremendous wave of blunt force had erupted from its tip, expanding instantly in all directions and blasting every nearby soul quite dramatically off his feet. Le Taureau’s men, encircling the table, had borne the worst of it as they had the misfortune to have walls impeding their trajectory. They were propelled through the splintering beams and panels of the exploding hall, and left Etienne, Corporal Valnier and the group who’d been sitting a much cleaner path through which to be hurled after them.
He heard nothing; the sound of the world was drowned by the whine in his ears cutting through his skull. He pushed himself up, looked up at the chunks of debris still raining from the sky through the smoke that hovered just above the ground. There was a lumpen mass beneath him. Etienne had come to rest on top of one of Le Taureau’s men, or rather what was left of the man, as this one had gone straight through a particularly thick plank of wood that had, in turn, gone straight through him. Swallowing retches, Etienne peeled himself off the body and rolled free, arms and legs as flimsy as fabric as he tried to rise. He could not get a good sense of the scene, of how many of the bodies lying near him were threats, how many were friendly and how many, regardless of allegiance, would simply never move again. Etienne began to see the other villagers emerge from beyond the smoke, saw stupefied and fearful expressions crest into rage as they spotted him. To the east, a horse’s cry broke through the fog, and Etienne bolted for it, the angry shouts aimed at him blissfully unheard. The fence surrounding the horse pen had been blown apart, and Etienne leaped onto the nearest mount, seized the reins and gave it a hard kick in the ribs. They were clear of the smoke in only a few seconds, and the wreckage of St. Iliane began to fall away.
It had not been long before other survivors had availed themselves of the remaining horses and set out after him. However, Etienne was not sure where he was leading them, if he could allow himself a spare thought to ponder it. The pitiless sun was sinking lazily to his right, so he must have been heading south, though the jerking course through the wilderness he and the horse were following could scarcely be called true. Wherever they turned, ahead seemed only miles and miles of frail, browned scrub and the dry earth from which it sprang. Direction was not the priority, distance was, and right now he needed much more of it between himself and his pursuers.
Who were those men? As though, when a man has a blade to your neck, it matters who tailors his clothes. To Etienne they needed to be nothing more than a faceless monolith, thinking and moving as one giant melding of man and horse, possessed of a single, unchanging, unwavering intent: him, captured, or dead. Presented with garnish to Le Taureau and his bleeding, likely gangrenous hand. Everything else was irrelevant and a distraction, and distractions cost speed.
Etienne risked a glance back over his shoulder, through the curving trail of dust clouds simmering up from where hoofprints had cracked the ground and back toward the receding contours of the hills that concealed St. Iliane on the other side. He could not see anyone else. His fingers relaxed their chokehold on the reins as the longed-for sensation of relief dared to trickle its way up from the constant churning in his gut. He even felt the creeping inklings of a smile at the corners of his lips. Not a satisfied smile, since that would require a level of delusion about one’s grandeur that even his usual arrogance would not permit, but more the realization that there would indeed be another day for him at the end of this one that had seen him so close to a most final defeat. The smile was even edging the to threshold of a laugh when the ground quite literally felt out from under him.
Looking aft, Etienne had not noticed the approaching change in terrain, or more precisely the sudden interruption of their path by a downward slope. The horse handled it well enough, regaining its footing after only one misstep, but Etienne, unprepared, required just that much longer to steady himself, and in that space where time is measured in fractions of breaths, said fractions can mean the difference between remaining seated upon one’s horse and shaking one’s head at the close call, or tumbling sideways out of the saddle and rolling end over end to a bruised stop at the very bottom of the dale.
Etienne wheezed and sat up to watch his deliverance gallop onwards without him. Despite himself, he let loose with a flurry of oaths casting aspersions upon its parentage, and turned himself to the question of locating a decent place to hide, given that the option of escape had now, well, escaped.
Thirst filled his throat with sandpaper and squeezed blood from blistered lips. Hunger had long since evolved from a nuisance easily dismissed to a persistent, scraping gnaw. Exhaustion crept up on him and tied weights to his eyelids, but Etienne willed himself awake and vigilant, secreted behind a wall of rocks, waiting for the veil of night to slip over the landscape. His ears probed the desolate terrain for the merest squeak of movement, finding only the whistle of hot desert wind. It had been hours now, but he refused to move until he could be certain of his safety, certain that anyone from St. Iliane and Le Taureau had at the last given up the hunt.
Etienne propped himself up against a cracked boulder and winced as it needled at his back. Pain was such an unfamiliar sensation to him, the absence of comfort a theft of his sense of himself. His life was casino tables and gorgeous women and fine wine, not clinging to survival by threads in a forsaken wilderness. But once he knew that he was safe, what then? He was alone, without a mount or supplies – or allies for that matter – miles from anywhere resembling the civilization he deserved. He was beginning to resign himself to the notion that this fate was of his own making. That he had been foolish to accept this task from the Bureau, regardless of their inducements. It would not impact them a single iota if he was to fail. They could write him and his men off with a few flourishes of a quill and simply assign someone else to the pursuit of Nightingale. Perhaps they had selected him deliberately for a mission of futility for fear of his ambition and status, his unparalleled record of success. Perhaps the paranoid Directeur Ste-Selin had viewed the Nightingale situation as the perfect opportunity to rid himself of a skilled competitor. Would it not amuse the man, then, to learn of Etienne’s plight now. Abandoned, lost, likely dying, all for the obsessive love of a witch whose real name he did not even know. And for Etienne, the worst part of it still was the notion that he might never see her again.
Her beauty sang across the divide of perception as sleep tried to claim him. She would be there waiting in his dreams as she always was, every night, every sliver of a nap even. He only needed to let go, to succumb to the weariness, to her siren call. He knew, though, that this time he would not wake, and any chance of encountering the real Nightingale would be lost forever. That kept his eyes open, his mind focused. He needed to endure, for her. He dared not depart a world in which she existed. Pas encore.
The cry of crows shattered the silence. Etienne shook himself from his haze and peered out from the outcropping of stone, across the valley floor. Shadows grew long and the sun turned the rouge of an old harlot’s lips as it drifted beyond the hills to the west, but the angry heat continued to sap every last drop of moisture out of the ground and out of Etienne’s body. Strength in his limbs had become but a memory now.
Dust stirred beneath the dwindling rose petal sky and shot a lingering jolt of alertness through his veins. Etienne’s vision had grown glassy, but within the panorama of blur he could see shifting blobs of dark, their movements too orderly to be the randomness of nature. There was a sound to it, too, a crescendo and fade of indistinguishable bursts, their duration shifting from short to long. Etienne fell back behind the stones, shut his eyes and diverted his attention to his ears. Perhaps it was nothing? The world was not inclined to be kind to him this day, however, and the longer he listened, the more those blurred sounds sharpened themselves into the recognizable patois of voices.
Bite du diable. They had found him.
It would not be much of a last stand. Etienne could no longer move his legs. He groped at the ground for something he could use to defend himself: a rock, a stick, anything with a pointed end, but blistered fingers came away only with mounds of gravel that slipped between them.
The voices were getting closer, and they were shouting, calling out. The words were still a muddle, buried beneath the din of hooves against earth. Perhaps now, Etienne wondered, it might be time to let go, to answer Nightingale’s call, to give himself fully to the visions of her. He saw the beautiful face beaming at him, the slender fingers draped in the violet light of her magic beckoning him to surrender to her, the perfect lips forming the shape of his name. Etienne. And it occurred to him that he had no idea what her voice sounded like, that perhaps it sabotaged her willowy, ethereal presence by being an oddly-accented, raspy, tone-deaf squeak. That amused him, and he laughed as consciousness finally slipped away.
Etienne. “Etienne. Etienne!”
Someone was shaking his shoulders, hard. Etienne clawed at the darkness, desperate to remain its prisoner. Waking offered him nothing; in slumber he was carefree in the company of his fantasies. But he was pulled up and away from the abyss, hauled by the legs like a rabbit to market, and flailing fingers could not keep him anchored. Light pried apart his eyelids and wedged the real world back in, and he was greeted not by some anonymous thug but by the welcome visage of Corporal Valnier. “Monsieur,” he said once Etienne was aware of him, reverting to their custom. “You’re safe.”
“Valnier,” Etienne whispered. Every halting syllable scraped over a razor. “Still… no more… than two words for me?”
The corporal grinned as he pushed a skin full of blissful water to his master’s lips. “Drink up.”
They replenished his fluids, gave him enough food to quell his irate stomach and tended to the worst of his wounds, and at Etienne’s insistence got him swiftly onto a horse and their company riding onwards to the south before the first stars began to twinkle in the night. There were only six of them now. Valnier was sure that at least four had been lost back in St. Iliane, and there had been no sign of the others. As the corporal related it, in his economical manner, of course – Etienne had to piece together the missing parts of the tale with observation and deduction – despite the immediate casualties, the company had made a decent fight of it and managed to retrieve a good portion of their gear and weapons in the confusion, before setting out after the posse that had been pursuing Etienne and, eventually, running them all down. Etienne allowed himself a smile at that, though he was not enamored to hear that Le Taureau was still alive, and that even crippled, the enormous man had taken down two of his men. There was a score to be settled there, and Etienne imagined for a moment descending upon St. Iliane clad in his Commissionaire’s uniform with a legion of soldiers at his back.
Premières choses premières, however, and a decent night’s sleep would be a good start.
They located a suitable camp adjacent to a small freshwater lake once the last of the daylight had gone, though as usual the departing sun did not take its heat with it. Valnier supervised the securing of the horses, the distribution of food rations and the construction of a fire, the latter for its visibility and certainly not for its warmth. Etienne sat back and watched and listened to his men as they set up their sleeprolls and chatted amongst themselves. They were by turns angry, remorseful, embittered and afraid, and he did not know what he could say to them by way of reassurance. He had never been one to ingratiate himself with the men under his command; to him they remained anonymous drones useful only for the carrying out of orders, and with the exception of Valnier it was his habit never to keep the same complement for more than one assignment. He let Valnier tend to the names and the foibles and the quirks while he remained detached and concentrated on the mission.
Ce soir, he found himself examining their faces and thinking about the four who had not made it out of St. Iliane. Those four men could not have imagined when they saw the sunrise this morning that it would be for the last time. They could not have imagined that the filthy water Le Taureau saw fit to serve them would be the last drink they would ever taste. They had entered into this contract expecting that they would do the job, receive their pay, and go home, to wherever and whatever home was. Somewhere there were people waiting for those four men to return. Etienne could not even admit that they died for a worthy cause. If anything, they had died because of his pride, his vanity, his arrogance. Hardly reasons one could satisfactorily explain to a grieving widow.
After a time the men settled into base conversation and filthy humor, presided over by the silent Valnier, who sat by the fire with arms crossed. Etienne rose to his feet and wandered off, mumbling an excuse to his corporal about locating some privacy to relieve himself. The corporal nodded, implying with a look that Monsieur should remain where he could be seen at all times.
Etienne walked a good distance down, to the edge of the shoreline, stopping where the water lapped gently at the toes of his boots, and looked out over the long white V painted by the moonlight upon its still sheen. Those men, Valnier included, would all be looking to him for what to do next. For the first time, he had no answer. He could not go back to Calerre and supplicate himself before the Directeurs now. The unspoken order had been to return with his quarry or not at all, meaning the alternatives offered by failure were exile, prison, or, a convenient disappearance. The mission had to continue, but, to where, and to what end? The damned witch left no trace of herself, no trail for a hunter to follow. The path before him was as dark and shapeless as the lake before him now. One might as well have asked an ant to chase this bird.
Etienne unlaced his boots and kicked them off, and stepped into the water. It curled about his toes and caressed his blisters. He loosened his shirt collar, and found himself undoing buttons, then slipping his arms out of the sleeves and letting it fall aside. His belt was next, and he stood naked on the shore and let the hot breeze slide between his legs for a moment before abandoning all further semblance of caution and plunging headfirst into the lake.
It was warm and soupy and clogged with algae, but Etienne did not care. He swam until the water began to clear and feel cool. He floated on his back and looked up at the moon, at the canopy of stars splashed across the sky. They were uncommonly brilliant tonight, and he struggled to recall the last time he had looked at them. His father had taught him the names of the most prominent ones, but those secrets had long been forgotten. What good, he had asked in his more callous days, were those tiny dots of light up there? Certainly nothing worth remembering what the misguided astronomers chose to call them.
Etienne waded further. The campfire at the shore was an easily located beacon, so he was not concerned about becoming lost in the darkness. He did not relish returning, though. He would be content to remain out here as long as he could plausibly extend it. Going back meant giving an answer to that question they all wanted to ask, and he still had none. For now he was content to let them have their time, and exchange their jokes, and roast dried meat in the flickering flames in the hopes of lending it some palatable flavor.
Etienne squinted as he looked back. The flames were not flickering. They were steady, like those of a candle. He had never seen a fire that size be that calm. Odd. Maybe he was just tired. But no sound was coming from the campsite either. The voices had stopped.
Etienne paddled closer. It was more than just a steady flame. It was frozen still. Sparks that had snapped free of cracking logs hovered in mid-air, caught and held motionless by an unseen hand. The five men, too, were suspended in the midst of their own respective movements, robbed of all will. It was as if he was looking at a painting of the scene in the most realistic style imaginable, rendered by the sixth person abruptly standing with them.
Clad in a hooded cloak.
A chill shot through Etienne’s spine, and the water beading on skin exposed to the air evaporated into dry cold as his breath turned to mist.
Furious arms ploughed water into foam as he swam hard for shore. The figure in the cloak crouched and extended a hand, reaching a slender, feminine finger out to tap gently against the surface of the water, as though testing its temperature. A purple flash spread out from her fingertip through the body of the lake, expanding in ever-widening concentric rings of light. As magic hurtled through each drop of water it solidified instantly. The wave spread further and washed over Etienne. It caught him at the waist. He felt a hard wrench on his midsection as the spell seized him in its grip, and though he could feel himself ordering his legs to kick they did not move. He was suspended in what had become an enormous transparent block, with him very much the insect in that amber.
Etienne looked up to see the figure in the cloak step out onto the now stony surface of the lake. He opened his mouth to call to Valnier, but the corporal remained a frozen sculpture, staring blankly into a fire that was just as lifeless as he.
The cloaked figure began walking towards him, striding with purpose. Etienne shivered, even as the cold air infused itself with a familiar, seductive scent.
It’s her. Mes dieux, it’s her.
She stood over him, and as she drew back her hood and allowed her long hair to spill out, Etienne fought the impetus to gasp at the revelation once more of the beauty that had arrested his senses and his heart, upon their first encounter. She was, impossibly, even more than the vivid picture that had haunted every moment of his existence since. Such feelings she fired in him he could scarcely comprehend, let alone try to control. Of all the emotions, all the wild thoughts surging within him in her presence, the only one that was clear was that he was hers.
Luscious amaranthine lips parted, and she spoke music to him.
“Hello, Etienne,” Nightingale said. “You’ve been looking for me.”
* * *
And we will leave it there for 2014. Have a happy New Year and look forward to the resumption of this rapidly sprawling tale far sooner than you’ll see hoverboards on retail shelves. Thanks always for reading!