Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Heroes and Madmen

As the Spanish Armada and French Wars of Religion rage, three outlaws race to stop an assassin from murdering Queen Elizabeth I.

Complete at 116,500 words.


EXCERPT

Prologue

Paris, France 1588

Remy Lesonne stretched in the saddle and glanced up at the Portal of the Virgin on Notre Dame's grand western fa├žade as his horse walked slowly below, just as he had done the last dozen times he had passed this spot today. The man-at-arms’ shoulders sagged, his head drooped and he again cursed his helmet, which seemed to grow a stone’s weight with each slow, deliberate circuit around the busy cathedral. Remy yawned and returned to his duty, watching the people on the wide lanes and narrow alleys spread before the building. His eyes quickly found a young woman lingering on a street corner not far away, her too short skirt and too tight bodice revealing not only her soft, white flesh but her profession.

“Perhaps some company for your master tonight, eh?” Remy muttered to his horse, affectionately patting the animal’s neck.

He watched the whore for a long moment, until her steps carried her around a corner and from his view. With a sigh, he turned and again scanned the streets and the people bustling about. His gaze passed over one of the alleys and continued on before he realized he had seen something there, something odd. From the shadows, someone was watching him!

He spun and faced the alley again, his eyes struggling to pierce the gloom. He saw nothing now. He tapped his heels into his mount's flanks and the beast moved forward.

“Monsieur! Monsieur Lesonne!”

The young acolyte's high-pitched voice pierced the din of the busy Parisian street. Remy pretended not to hear, hoping he would go away.

“Monsieur Lesonne, the Cardinal beckons!" the lad called, running toward him.

The man-at-arms tugged on his horse’s reins and stopped. Of course the Cardinal beckons, Remy thought. He is always beckoning. Another glance at the alley showed only empty shadows. If someone was there, he is gone now, he thought. He turned to face the young priest in training, now standing next to him and tugging at Remy’s boot.

“Monsieur, the Cardinal,” the boy repeated, reaching out to stroke the charger’s side. The warhorse whisked its tail at him and snapped its head back, teeth showing. The youth jumped back, eyes wide. Remy chuckled and nodded to the acolyte, his thoughts of the whore’s curves replaced by the grim visage of the Cardinal.

Remy stabled his horse and trudged into the church, waving off the acolyte; he knew well the way to the Cardinal’s study. A moment later he arrived and, before he could knock, the priest’s deep voice beckoned him in. Remy swallowed nervously and entered.

Louis Cardinal de Guise, Pope Sixtus V's handpicked apostolic nuncio to King Henry III, was one of the most powerful men in France. He would soon be even more so, Remy reflected, when the man’s brother, Duke Henri, ruled France. Remy had provided his services – and his blade – to Duke Henri many times in the past, just as he and his small band of mercenaries served the Cardinal now.

Remy stepped into the chamber, again struck by the lavish opulence of the room, the priceless art, the exquisitely carved and gilded furniture, the thick Turkish carpet beneath his mud-spattered boots. He realized the Cardinal stood before him, a scowl on his face. The man-at-arms quickly bowed low to kiss the offered ring.

“Your Eminence.”

“Do not sit,” Cardinal de Guise said, returning to his own chair. “You will not stay long.” Remy said nothing, assuming his usual posture of respectful waiting, though his eyes darted of their own accord to the overstuffed chair not a foot away.

The Cardinal was neither tall nor distinguished of face or feature, yet Remy could not help but again feel the aura of power, of absolute righteousness and confidence surrounding and emanating from the priest. His tone of voice when he spoke was that of a man not used to hearing the word no. De Guise said nothing for a long moment, staring at Remy in quiet contemplation. When he finally spoke, it was as if only to complete an onerous chore he knew he must.

“Shall I bother to ask the status of your search for Father Poirot, or should I just assume you and your men have failed to locate him for yet another day?”

“We are ever vigilant, milord,” Remy answered. “But there have been no confirmed sightings of Father Poirot for many weeks. With all due respect, Your Grace, I fear he is no longer in Paris and my men and I are but wasting our time here. Your brother has need of our—services--elsewhere.”

“Poirot betrayed my brother! The search for the Judas will continue until Judgment Day if need be!" The man of war recoiled from the rage that suddenly consumed the man of God. It flared for but a moment though. When he spoke again, his voice was calm. "But as for you and your men, I agree you are of little use--here. We have another task for you; one at which I hope you will not fail so miserably. In your stead others will continue the search for the traitor.”

“Others?”

“Others. I have done what I should have all along and dispatched a messenger to request assistance from the Sword of Michael.”

A derisive snort escaped from Remy despite his efforts to choke it back.

The Cardinal's cheeks colored with anger once more. “You find that funny?”

“Well, no, Your Eminence. And yes. I mean, you do realize the Sword of Michael does not really exist, don’t you? They are a myth, milord, a bugbear used to frighten sinners and errant children.”

Cardinal de Guise looked at the man with something approaching pity before slowly shaking his head. “You really are terribly ignorant, man. I assure you, the Sword of Michael is as real as you and I. Unlike you, however, when they are given a task they do not fail; they have never failed the Church. They will arrive shortly. Until then I have doubled the guard along the city walls and tripled it at the gates, and my priests are keeping watch to ensure the soldiers do their duty on pain of death."

"And what of this other task you have for me and my men, milord?"

"Here is a list of names--I trust you can read? Good--and where those on it can be found.” The Cardinal handed him a scrolled parchment. “You and your soldiers are to take them into custody at once. If they resist, kill them.”

The task seemed simple enough--until Remy looked at the list. His eyes widened and the color drained from his face. “Can this be correct? These are some of the most powerful nobles in all of France, Your Grace.”

“They are traitors, Lesonne, men who refuse to recognize God's will and accept my brother as regent! Even now they plot to overthrow him and return the Huguenot lover to the throne. But they will fail and my brother will be crowned king."

"You expect Henry to abdicate?"

“No, I expect Henry to die. In fact, I mean to ensure it. I am certain my brother will be disappointed the king's death will not occur by his hand on the glorious field of combat, but you of all people should know the uncertainties of war, the mischievous fates that play about that instrument of man's ambition. No, the throne of France is far too important to leave to chance.”

“An assassin?” Remy asked. The Cardinal said nothing, but his smile was answer enough. “But how, milord? I thought the king had fled to England?”

"And my man with him, a loyal member of the Royal Court. Dear Harry's flight to prostrate himself before that Protestant whore Elizabeth has only prolonged the inevitable. In fact, he has condemned her as well, for now God's servant shall strike them both down!”

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