THE MAN WENT UP the rope hand over hand, swaying sideways with kicking feet, framed against the night sky. Below him the cold waters of the moat reflected the stars and crescent moon; above him loomed the dark battlements of the Château Neussy. Against the stone walls of the turret, where he climbed, a yellow rectangle of candlelight gleamed. Somewhere along the wall walks a viol scratched out an even song.
The man smiled grimly. There would be a different sort of serenata sung in the tower apartment before the night was done. He went up the rope at a slightly faster pace. His breath labored in his throat, and his shoulders felt the weight of his body again and again. Then his hand edged over the stone coping of the inset window, and he rested.
He pulled himself onto the ledge, panting harshly.
As his eyes raked the moat and the lifted bridge, the portcullis chains and the twin turrets of the barbican, his hand closed over the horn haft of the hunting knife at his belt. His fingers tightened until the skin over the knuckles turned white. Hate burned in him with a slow, steady flame. He swung about and stared into the candlelit solar.
His breath caught in his throat.
Where he had expected a man, a woman stood. She was in the early years of her maturity, of middle stature, with a rounded perfection of limb and body that made the man purse his lips thoughtfully. She wore only a shift of sendal, a material so thin he could see the shapeliness of her white legs from the sloping hips to the red leather poulaines on her feet. When she turned slightly, he saw her profile and knew her for the Lady Alix of Bar, wife to Raoul d'Anquetonville, Lord of Neussy and Valclare.
It was D’Anquetonville he had thought to surprise in the tower solar, for whom the knife was intended, who was to die so that he, The Bastard, might have his vengeance. A growl of anger at this trickery of fate rose in his throat; as suddenly, it was gone. Where a scowl of fury had darkened his features, now a smile transfigured them. Revenge might be more than murder done to repay murder. A life for a life could have more than one interpretation.
He moved forward, and now the yellow radiance of the many candles revealed his face to be that of a young man in his early twenties, agile and strong as one of the great panthers on display at Arles. His hair was close-cropped and tawny above a face that possessed the handsome features of the Valois family. In leather jerkin and cavalier boots, he looked more the soldier down on his luck than the nobleman.
Patience was a voice inside him, counseling prudence. The hour was long past complin, which was the hour of bedtime.
Already the Château was half asleep. There was no footfall of guardsman or serving woman in the tower room, only the Lady Alix in her camisa before her wall mirror of Venetian glass, brushing the long brown hair which fell below her waist. At every stroke of the brush, her firm breasts trembled, loose under the thin sendal bodice. The young man crouching in the window niche became aware of an increased excitement in his breathing. It had been a long time since he'd looked upon a woman preparing for bed.
Placing the brush on a large chest that stood against the wall below the mirror, the Lady Alix moved with swaying body across the room toward the garderobe. When she was out of sight behind a standing screen, the man slid off the windowsill into the room and went silently to the big oaken door. His hand slipped the thick iron bolt through its hoops and blessed the provost's clerk for greasing it.
A silver flagon of chilled wine caught his eye. He poured the rich red Bordeaux claret into a matching goblet and sipped, relishing the tart flavor. He was still sipping as Lady Alix came striding from the garderobe to pause in amazement at sight of him. Her chin lifted imperiously.
"Who are you? What are you doing in my bedchamber?"
Realizing how exposed her body must be in the thin stuff of her camisa, she looked about for her wrapper. Cheeks flushed, she reached for it only to find the handsome young invader a step before her, lifting the peliçon and holding it up between them. His smile was lazy, confident.
"Come, let me be your servant in the absence of your husband."
“Who are you?" she whispered. Her eyes studied him more closely now, noting the handsome face and powerful body, the warm blue eyes that roved so shamelessly between the low neck of her shift and its hem. She asked hesitantly, "Louis? But the Duke of Orleans has been dead so many years! And yet—"
"Jean, Lady Alix. His son—The Bastard."
“Ohhh!” Her hand went to her mouth, and her eyes grew wide. She had heard tales of this young hothead, of his duels with the Burgundian nobles he ran to earth between Bretagne and Calais, of the various ways in which he took his vengeance on those who had stabbed his father on the cobbles of the Rue Vielle du Temple in Paris. He wore a long hunting knife at his belt. Alix of Bar was not a stupid woman. Only the chance that had taken her husband to Rouen had prevented this firebrand from achieving his vengeance this night.
She said softly, "If you go now, I promise I'll not give the alarm. It will be our secret.” The mistress of Château Neussy could be persuasive when she desired. She was very attractive and was ranked as one of the leading beauties of France.
Jean shook his tawny head, smiling faintly. "I didn't come to deal in secrets. I came to avenge myself on D'Anquetonville.”
"My husband has gone to Rouen. It will be a disappointment, but you must forego your vengeance until another time." Triumph glistened in her eyes as a deep breath lifted the magnificent bosom under its sheer sendal covering.
The Bastard laughed and turned again to the wine pitcher. As the red Bordeaux flowed, he said casually, “I find vengeance to be a two-edged sword, milady. A man need not necessarily kill to take revenge."
The sharp glance that roved over her body made the Lady Alix take a backward step. She was older than this stripling who was sampling her claret-not so much older, however, that she might not prove attractive to him, she thought wildly. Yet she was certainly old enough to remember seeing his father Louis, Duke of Orleans and brother to King Charles VI of France, as a little girl. She could recall how handsome Duke Louis had been, how courtly of manner. This young cockatrice before her was just as fine a figure of a man.
"You talk in riddles," she snapped, anger making her flush.
"A riddle you understand only too well, madame. Your eyes betray your thoughts." He smiled down at her over the lowered goblet. “Your husband led the fatal attack on my father. Until this night I've never been able to get close enough to lay my mark on him—or on any of his possessions."
Her glance touched the great oaken door leading to the outer hall and its spiral staircase. She wondered if she might reach it and throw back the bolt before Jean could stop her. Uneasily, she realized she could not. With that knowledge came a stir of mounting excitement.
"Do you intend to kill me?" she whispered.
"For shame," he chided her, laughing softly. "I said before that vengeance has two sides. On one is the black swan of death, on the other the white egg of life.”
He moved across the rush-strewn floor toward the massive ambry that held her gowns and kirtles. On a rack beside it stood a number of headdresses, conical hennins standing side by side with twin-horned escoffions and the more delicate atours. He lifted one of the escoffions. "Horns of the devil, these are named. It's the wife who flaunts them publicly, but it should be the husband who wears them, morals being what they are these days."
Lady Alix shook her head. “I've been a faithful wife.”
“Until tonight," he added, and lifted the headdress. "How would your Raoul look wearing horns, madame?"
“You wouldn't dare!"
"Wouldn't I? I've come this far to kill him. I can stay a little longer to give his wife a child. Face it, madame. Raoul D'Anquetonville is too old to sire further children. You're his third wife. I may be your only hope to”
She whirled to run, but he was beside her before she had taken half a dozen steps on wobbling legs. An arm banded her back, held her soft body tight against his own. Then his mouth was warm on her lips, and his strength was such that she found herself welcoming his hard young body, his hungry mouth. She wanted desperately to struggle free, but a lethargy, on which a tide of desire began to rise, was in her flesh.
He kissed her soft white throat, her closed eyelids.
“We must not. Oh, I beg—” she breathed.
A kiss buried her words. Then she clung with starving arms—Raoul was an old man, not young and fiercely demanding like le Bâtard—and, even while she prayed to le bon Dieu for forgiveness, she aided him in slipping down the straps of her camisa. She moaned above his head, eyes closed, lost in a spill of pleasure. Only dimly was she aware of his hands tugging her thin shift to the floor.
She felt herself swung up in powerful arms and carried toward the canopied bed, lowered tenderly and admired first with ardent eyes and then with caressing lips. She writhed, her small white hands clenched into tiny fists. Her breasts were hard and her body receptive as he drew her to him.
The Lady Alix was not accustomed to the immoralities of court life and the casual manner in which noblemen and noblewomen bedded one another at whim. Oh, she knew enough of the goings-on which made the reign of the mad Charles VI a scandal in Europe. The father of this youth she held in her arms had seduced more than his share of high born ladies, among them the queen herself, Isabel of Bavaria,
wife of Charles VI. Gossip said he had also seduced the Duchess of Burgundy, which caused her husband John the Fearless to have him slain outside the Hotel Barbette. Some even murmured that the Dauphin, who would be the future Charles VII if fate permitted, was not the son of Charles VI but of the Duke of Orleans.
In this springtime of the year 1425, no one gave any thought to the love affairs that made the court of the Dauphin such a gay and light-hearted ménage. Virtue was a word with little meaning. She knew all that. But so far Alix of Bar had held herself aloof from this gay round of amoral intimacies.
She felt shame creep like a crimson tide above the fair white shoulders on which he rained his kisses, shame that fought with her heated blood, that made her whisper protests even as his caresses caused her to emit little cries of delight. For just a little while that shame troubled her; then it was drowned in the lifting tide of pleasure under which she shuddered.
“You are taking vengeance—without mercy, seigneur!"
"Is revenge ever merciful?"
"You have begun something I can never forget!”
Her arms about him, her kisses became as ardent, as searching as his own. There was a dormant flame in the Lady Alix which this young hothead was fanning into life. The thought occurred to her, as she gathered him against her body, that Raoul d'Anquetonville would never be enough to satisfy her from this night on. And in this knowledge the Lady Alix understood the terrible manner of his vengeance.
The Paris candles used to tell the time were guttering in their holders when she finally leaned above him, kissing the corners of his mouth with tender lips. "A devil you are, Jean. You've awakened me as a woman. Did you intend this or was it by the merest chance?"
As he stirred and would have rolled from the bed, her arms tightened, imprisoning him. Her smile was sensual. "Not yet. In all these years I never realized what a precious joy might be shared between a man and a woman. You came for vengeance. The horns are scarcely planted on my husband's brow. They need a firmer tamping."
Jean laughed. "It must be past the hour of lauds. Soon it will be dawn.”
“And you'll go back to killing the men who murdered your father. But not for a little while. Not yet.” She leaned above him, letting him know the weight of her breasts. "Is it so very important, this killing?"
“To me, yes. It's a goal giving purpose to my life.”
She made a wry face. “A silly, stupid goal for such a wonderful young man. To slay your father's murderers is selfish. They have so many friends. All Burgundy! One man against so many? It's a task to dismay a Samson.”
“Then don't play Delilah to my strength, Alix."
She collapsed in laughter on him. After a moment she turned her head sideways on his chest so she could look at him. "How long have you been away from your estates in Dauphine?"
"Six months or more. I quarreled with the Constable of France over the policies of state. Richemont holds the Dauphin's ear. I retired from the field to pursue my own inclinations. I became a soldier of fortune."
She considered that, staring down into his handsome face, suddenly remembering that Jean of Orleans was a married man. “And your wife? What does Marie think of this vengeance trail you take?”
"No wife of mine, that one. At best, wife in name only."
"Oh? Can I believe what you imply? That a hot-blooded young stallion would permit such a pretty mare to run untended?"
"She came to the altar a virgin. A virgin she remains. She considers herself too good to bed a bastard."
Bitterness erupted in him, making his mouth thin and hard. Once there had been a time when his only goal had been to attain the woman he loved, Marie Louvet. Now that dream, like so many others of his life, was washed away by the fact of his bastardy. He would never forget her mocking laughter as she had confronted him following the wedding ceremony, when they were alone in the solar of the great hall of Vaubernais.
The unclothed body of this woman beside him was warming, even more warming than the flame of the oil lamps in the solar that night three years before, when Marie had thrust him back, away from her. "You must be mad to think I'd let you take me in your arms, Jean. What difference does it make if a bishop has said a few Latin words over us?"
Amazement had held him speechless. True, their courtship had been a cold and formal affair, dictated by conventions and check-reined by the watching eyes of the Duchess Yolande of Anjou, who had arranged the match, but—
“Marie, you're tired. You don't know what you're saying!"
"Don't I? Have you ever heard me say I loved you? Never! I think I've always hated you, Jean. Actually hated!”
"But—but why? What did I ever do?"
The full red mouth he longed to kiss had curled in disdain. It's what you didn't do that maddens me. You had the misfortune to be born under an unlucky star. Your half brother Charles was much more clever. He had the sense to have Valentina Visconti for his mother! Your father's wife, his duchess. You chanced to pick an adulteress to give you birth."
He had shaken with the fury consuming him. The fingers of his right hand had opened and closed convulsively, again and again. He had wanted very much to strike out with that hand, to put the brand of his blow across her lovely features. Jean had fought his anger with every last ounce of will power. Calm, be calm! She's overtired and doesn't know the meaning of the words she speaks. Marie Louvet was three years younger than himself, scarcely more than a child despite the early signs of the mature beauty which would be hers.
Her hair, a dark, rich brown, had hung from her wedding coronet in long, rippling waves. Her adolescent bosom had made tiny mounds in the white samite of her wedding dress, and her young hips had been scarcely more rounded than those of a boy. Yet her dark, brooding eyes and pouting, overripe mouth had hinted at the sensuality that lay hidden behind the samite, a sensuality that had attracted his Valois blood. There had been a physical ache in his strong young arms to hold her close, an emptiness in his middle that could be filled only by her nearness.
"Marie, let's not quarrel on our first night,” he had pleaded.
Her shoulders had shrugged impatiently. “Quarrel? I'm not quarreling. I'm only telling you I've no intention of going to bed with you, that's all."
His hands had gestured outward. "Then why in the name of God did you marry me?"
"My father needed monies with which to repay certain loans advanced him by Jacques Coeur. His investments especially those in Flemish cloth manufacturers, who turned to England for their raw materials rather than to Champagne as of old—were disastrous. The gold écus d'or my marriage brought have set him on his feet again."
"I can't believe that! I'm not a rich man."
Her lips had quirked. "Your adoptive mother—the Visconti woman was wealthy beyond a greedy man's dreams. Your half brothers Charles of Orleans and Charles of Dauphine—"
"You mean the Dauphin? The future king?"
"He's your half brother, isn't he? Didn't Louis sire all three of you?"
He had not been able to fight the flush that had mounted into his pallid face. His girl-bride had laughed at him, head thrown back. "Jean, Jean! Didn't I say you were born under an unlucky star? The two Charles are legitimate—or at least Charles of Orleans is! France needs a king, so Charles of Dauphiné is permitted to be.”
She had come walking toward him with fluid ease, her boyish hips already swinging with a hint of the flirtatiousness that was to flower in later years. "The two Charles' and your mother gave you a royal dowry, Jean. To save my father, I agreed to stand before the bishop with you. But I don't consider myself your wife. Comprenez?"
His hand had lifted to strike, to lash back at her mockery with the only weapon he had, his physical strength. Never had he felt more alone in the world, more abandoned by fate and God. An emptiness inside him had made him reel; he had had to fight for composure. His arm had fallen to his side.
"I ought to beat you," he had snarled out of the despair that gripped him. "I ought to raise that gown and lay on with a willow switch."
Her head had gone high. Twin red spots had darkened her cheeks. "You wouldn't dare! I'm the daughter of the Sieur Louvet, Seneschal of Provence!"
“And a callous, unfeeling swing-tail!”
She had sprung to slap but had felt her wrist caught and turned so that she was flung off balance and fell against him. She had lain inside his arm like a wounded bird, trembling, filled with sudden terror, panting softly. Jean had been able to feel her lifting ribs against his front.
Her wide eyes had been inches from his own, staring up at him. Just as close had been that red fruit of a mouth, slightly parted. His arms had tightened slowly, holding her young body against his own until he could feel her from knees to throat. She could not stir so much as a finger.
It was then he had kissed her tenderly, as if he would have spoken silently to the womanhood inside her proud little body, telling her the love he had for her. Something inside him had called to whatever femininity she might be hiding behind the white samite.
Her mouth had firmed against his, suddenly, and had held the kiss.
When he released her, she had slapped him.
If he had known more of women during this period of his life, The Bastard might have recognized that Marie Louvet had been fighting not so much his love as the feelings storming into her virgin heart. Scarcely out of childhood, she had still been full of the imageries of the Roman de la Rose and the chivalrous ideals of Jean de Meun. A lover in her bemused eyes had been more ethereal than earthy, more heavenly than human.
As it was, he had read only disgusted rejection on her features. He had said wearily, "All right, I'll go. I love you too much to do what I suppose I ought, throw you down on the bedstead yonder and pay no heed to your maidenly modesty or your virginal screamings." His lips had twisted bitterly. “It's another misfortune of mine, my sentimentality.”
She had watched, scarcely breathing, as he came and caught her chin in a band. "Be grateful I love you so much, Marie. And remember me in your prayers."
He had walked out of the room into the long gallery and closed the door behind him. He had never seen his wife again. ...
The Lady Alix of Bar sensed his wandering thoughts and, as if to tempt him to the present, ran the tip of a forefinger about his mouth, which was so quick to respond to laughter and to anger, or to the shape of a kiss. "You and Marie were only children. She may feel differently now."
"Not that one! I swore I'd forget her, and I have.”
"By slaying the men who slew your father?”
"It's a goal I set myself long ago. When Aubert de Flamency, the Sieur de Canry—the lawful spouse of my mother, Mariette d'Enghien, Madame de Canry—wanted to adopt me, I refused. I would be known as The Bastard, since that was the way God let me come into the world. I sought no other title. It reminds me of what I am."
"And what is that, Jean?"
"A hand to hold a dagger. No more."
They lay quietly while the glittering candles threw dark shadows across their naked bodies. Jean stared sightlessly at the canopy above them, seeing neither the heavy Spanish brocade nor the intricately carved oaken posts; instead he saw the handsome laughing man who had sired him. He had been only four years old when Burgundian daggers felled Duke Louis, and such young minds remember little of what they see and hear. Only fragmentary memories remained to him of hands tossing him high into the air, of bright blue eyes beaming down at him proudly. He thought bitterly, If he had lived, he would have made me legitimate by adopting me. Duke Louis' death removed all chance of that! Jean's hatred had begun in the first hour of his realization that bastardy was to make a difference in his life. It had crystallized in that hour of agony with Marie Louvet.
"You could be more than a hand and a dagger, you know," she whispered between nibbles at his ear lobe. “The Dauphin is your half brother, everybody says. Your father was his father."
His laughter was bitter. “My father had a way with women."
“Like father, like son.”
Sometimes he wondered if he ought not hate his parent rather than those who wore the red cross of Burgundy. He knew the story only too well—how Duke Louis of Orleans had carried on a love affair with Queen Isabel of Bavaria, wife to the mad king Charles VI and leader of the court revels long before they put away her husband. Nobody knew how many of her children had been sired by Louis of Orleans. Rumor could only guess.
“As half brother to the future king, your fortune is assured," she went on, beginning to stroke him slowly with soft white hands.
“Future king? Of what? England and Burgundy rule France from the Channel to Orleans. And England rules Burgundy."
“Dispossess them, Jean. Your father was a soldier as well as a lover of fair ladies. You may have inherited more than one of his talents.”
He looked at her as if she were as mad as King Charles. “Would you teach me ambition?”
"Only love," she murmured, and rose to hands and knees.
After a moment he gasped and stared up at her in surprised delight. “Who takes revenge now, milady?" Her eyes were closed, her white teeth sunk into her lower lip. When he put his hands on her she gave a wild cry and fell on him, trembling spasmodically.
The night became eternity and the bed a battlefield on which The Bastard achieved triumph and defeat in the arms of this frenzied woman, who whispered strange and broken words as her hands caressed his body. He was both victor and vanquished; he fought her and, in fighting, loved her until she cried out in sobbing tones to name him slave and master in the same breath.
“Thus might you—do with France—could you find the way! In this manner—might you reach the goal I dream for you! Jean? Jean, can you hear me? I am so far away—in another world entirely—yet so close. Oh, so very close! You are more than—a hand and dagger. You are!”
During her mad outcries, Alix of Bar wondered if she sought to justify her pleasure by making him more than he was, so that her surrender might be symbolical of something other than temporary lust. She did not know the truth. All she did was ask the question. Only Jean of Orleans and time itself might know the answer....
Dawn was a red sky beyond the river Aisne as Jean dressed and moved to the recessed stone window. The rope he had hung from the tower merlons yesterday afternoon, after gaining entrance to the Château disguised as a wandering mendicant, was close to his hand as he leaned out.
Lady Alix said, "If a guard sees you, you'll be killed."
"Little risk, little gain—and I've gained much tonight." He drew her against him for a last kiss.
"Was it more than just revenge?"
He pinched a bared buttock and laughed, then caught the rope in his hands and stepped from the stone window. The moat lay two hundred feet below, dank with reeds, beginning to reflect the brightening light of day in its smooth surface. Jean could see himself in those waters like a spider crawling down its web. It would be the hour of primes very soon now, and the guard would be changing on the wall walks. Thirty feet above the moat he loosed his grip on the rope and fell.
The cold moat waters closed down over his head. He sank like a stone, waiting until his lungs seemed about to burst before swimming as swiftly as he could for the shelter of the drawbridge overhang. The dark wooden boards protected him from all eyes but those at a window-slit in the east wall, and that chance of discovery he would have to risk. He popped to the surface gasping, clinging to a rusty ring-bolt until he was breathing normally once again.
He swam across the moat, underwater, and pulled himself up over the stone abutment. Without looking back he set off southward toward the forest of Compiègne. Last night he had tethered his black gelding to an oak tree in the forest. Momentarily he expected a crossbow quarrel to thud between his shoulder blades; he walked with his head held high, but behind his belt his insides were as weak as mush. Only when he reached the first stand of elm trees did he dare to turn and look back at the Château Neussy.
Something white fluttered in the tower window.
His arm lifted and waved back at the Lady Alix.
Then he was plunging between the thick boles of mighty oaks and chestnuts, smelling the fragrance of blooming hyacinth in this springtime of the year, tramping over clustering trilliums and hepaticas. Alix of Bar had said her husband was traveling the Rouen road, which ran through the forest of Compiègne. Jean le Bâtard did not want to be caught within chasing distance of the Château Neussy by Raoul d'Anquetonville.
Relief touched him when he saw the black gelding cropping grass at the end of its long tether. The horse lifted its head, as he approached, and whinnied. Jean grinned and clapped a hand to the shiny rump.
“Ha, mon fidele! You like the grasses of Compiègne? Bien! Then feast quickly, for we won't be here much longer."
He put his toe in the wooden stirrup and swung upward into the saddle, a plain wooden hull covered with black leather. His long-sword dangled from a strap at the pommel. A coat of mail, tied by leather thongs and fastened tightly to his unadorned helmet, was thrown over the crupper, which held leather bags containing some extra clothes and a small sack of golden livres tournois.
Everything he owned in the world he carried on the gelding, or so he liked to feel. It gave him a sense of freedom to know there was no one dependent on him for his or her happiness or livelihood. Sometimes at night the thought came to him that he might be shirking a duty, but he put this notion aside hastily, for he was filled only with a sense of urgency to accomplish the task of revenge he had set himself.
He rode through the early morning sunlight, with the chirp of sparrows sounding from the berry bushes on either side of the wide dirt road. His belly was empty, but his heart and mind were alive with the knowledge that he had avenged himself on his greatest living enemy, Raoul d'Anquetonville. The old Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless-he who had ordered his father cut down with cold steel-had been dead five years now, slain on the Montereaufault-Yonne bridge, with the Dauphin looking on, and so removed from the touch of the hunting knife at Jean's belt.
All he had left to his blade were four men.
His fingers counted them off—first there was Raoul d'Anquetonville, then Gaudry of Angers, Robert de Berri and Étienne Aymon. Three others were dead by his hand—François of Anjou and Guillaume the Fleming in alleyway duels, Roland of Uisel during a knife fight at an inn in Troyes.
Now D’Anquetonville was a cuckold.
Jean whistled the tune of a popular balada. Too bad those others had no wives as sensual as Alix of Bar. Ma foi, but the night had been well spent. She had been a revelation, the D'Anquetonville woman. It would be pleasant indeed to revenge himself upon those others as he had on old Raoul.
For a little while shame rode the saddle with him. I'm no better than a sneak thief skulking behind merchant's stalls or street door recesses to snatch a purse when a man's not looking! No, he must not begin thinking like that. His whole life was wrapped around his vengeance. If he had no such goal to sustain him, he would be no more than the villein laboring in the fields to produce turnips and wheat for the manor table—or even less, for the villein had a purpose in life, no matter how ignoble.
The dust rose in little puffs behind the clopping hoofs of his horse, and the sunlight was warm on his back. He drowsed a little in the high-peaked saddle, promising himself he would stop at the next wayside inn for cheese and bread and chilled wine.
A distant cry woke him to the moment.
The forest was thinning here, and rolling meadows lay like long green carpets on the land. A stone fence made a twisting path along a field of barley, and beyond this a thin line of poplars formed a windbreak to a field whose furrows sprouted beans and cabbages, lettuce and cucumbers. The blue spring sky was filled with fleecy clouds, and a lazy breeze made the yellow bellworts sway by the roadside.
Yet his eyes saw none of these.
His gaze was fastened instead on a thin black plume of smoke lifting upward beyond the tilled fields. An instant later he caught the red lick of flames at a distant haystack.
“Brigands," he muttered, and drove his toes into the gelding.
He went at a fast gallop across the meadow. The black soared over the low stone fence as Jean put a hand on the braided handle of his long-sword, yanking it free of its scabbard. He could see several horses in the farmyard and two men struggling with a third. Again he heard the scream that had roused him from his reverie, as a woman appeared briefly in the open doorway of the hut before being dragged back into the interior.
The two men looked around at the sound of pounding hoof-beats They yelled hoarsely to their fellow inside the hut and released the peasant they were restraining. Drawing their swords, they ran to meet the oncoming rider. Free of his captors, the peasant whirled and made for the low door way of his hut.
Jean came down on the bandits at a headlong pace. His long blade glinted in the sunlight as he swung it in an overhand blow at the first man. Its edge went deep into a shoulder even as the gelding hit the second bandit and threw him off-stride Jean reined in and turned. The unwounded brigand was standing on spraddled legs, indecision written on his loutish face.
Then the gelding was looming above the bandit, who struck at the rider with flailing sword. Jean turned its edge and almost in the same motion brought his own blade around in a savage sideswipe. The steel caught the man at the base of the neck and sheared deep. He stood a moment, dead on his feet, eyes white and staring before he began to topple.
Jean leaped from the saddle and ran for the hut.
A red-headed man came into the doorway and stood grinning at him, sword in one hand, left fist tightly clenched. This was no stupid clod-poll as the others had been. Slyness looked out of those pig eyes, and shrewd cunning pursed thin lips. The sword in his right hand was red with blood. Jean wondered whether it was the man or woman he had killed probably the man. Dead, the woman was no use to him.
“No need for us to fight," the redhead said. “The woman's strong enough for both, and I'll share the jug of coins they have put away."
"Filth," said Jean, and leaped.
Too late he saw the clenched fist open and hurl dirt and straw into his eyes. Jean cried out and twisted to avoid the steel swiping at him. His booted foot caught in a root, and he pitched sideways. The blade intended for his head flicked past his arm, slicing the linen shirt.
Jean rolled along the ground, over and over.
The redheaded man only laughed and ran for his horse. He mounted up and banged heels into his mount. Jean came up to a knee, watching him ride off across the meadow. Excitement was still a pounding tide in his blood. He wanted to go after the man—the black gelding could have caught the heavier animal in a hundred yards.
The sobbing in the hut made him hesitate. He climbed to his feet and walked to the door. The interior was dim, lighted only by errant shafts of sunlight peeping between wall chinks and through the thatch-work roof.
A naked woman was kneeling weeping above the body of the man who had been held captive by the bandits in the yard. She was young and fair, and her skin was very white below the neck. Long yellow hair made a curtain around the face of the dead man. A pool of blood lay under him, soaking into the dirt floor.
Jean watched her a moment, wondering what kind of man he had been to make a woman like this care for him so much. From what he could see of her body, mostly back and pale hips, she seemed very lovely.
"I'm sorry," he said softly.
She lifted her tear-stained face to stare at him. She had a beautiful face, with slant gray eyes and a ripe red mouth that reminded him uneasily of Marie Louvet. Her hand scrabbled in the rushes that served as her bed to lift torn brown wool and hold it in front of her heavy white breasts. She was quick to cover herself, but Jean nevertheless saw dark bruises on her upper arms and across her ribs.
"Burgundian bastards!” she whispered brokenly. "May le bon Dieu strike all of them dead!”
"Amen," he said and smiled crookedly.
Her eyes focused on him for the first time. "He was my husband. We were married three months. Red Gui chased us out of Beaulieu so we settled here.”
"Red Gui? The one who killed your husband?"
"A brigand of the worst kind. He gets his name not so much from the color of his hair as from the blood of the Armagnacs he spilled in Paris six or seven years ago, during the massacres."
"I remember. The Burgundians took me prisoner then."
Surprise transfixed her kneeling body. “And they didn't kill you?" Her glance moved over his leather jerkin, the frayed linen shirt under it, the taut brown breeches above his cavalier boots. With a toss of her head she said, "You don't look like an important person."
He laughed at her honesty. "I'm not important. I wa—in those days. It's a long story."
"There'll be plenty of time for you to tell it to me," she informed him. "I'm coming with you. Now turn your head while I get into what's left of my dress.” When she saw the hesitation on his face she asked dully, “Would you leave me here for Red Gui to find when he comes back?”
"I ride alone,” he muttered. "I ride to kill three men. I don't know where they are."
“Retainers of the dead Duke John. They serve his son Philip now, I'm told.”
“Good. I'll help you kill them."
He stared at her, shrugged, then moved out into the fore noon sunlight. His eyes were caught and held by the two dead bodies in the yard. He supposed that this scene was being repeated, except as to small details, all over northern France from the Seine to the Channel. This was English territory now, its people helpless before the hordes of soldiers turned loose from the English and Burgundian armies and allowed to roam at will in robber bands across Picardy, Champagne and Normandy.
It was not an uncommon sight to come upon dead men swinging from tree limbs, nooses tight about their throats, or lying impaled on spears in their farmyards these days. All France groaned under the heel of the invader, from the Loire to the Strait of Dover. No man was safe in his home, be it rolling farmland or some twisting city alley. The English did not bother to check the bandits; in a sense they were their allies, for they kept the people in a servitude more frightening than any army of occupation could have achieved.
Life was hard enough for the serfs and peasants, even in time of peace. It was unbearable now. A woman could expect rape as a daily hazard from the leaderless bands of routiers, just as a man could expect death. The lucky ones might buy their liberty, but after a while the supply of deniers ran out, and without money the common people were helpless.
Pride was an ugly taste in Jean's mouth. He spat.
This was his land, this France. These people—the dead man in the hut and his blonde wife—were his people. On his own estate of Vaubernais, in the province of Dauphiné, the villeins were free men. So far to the south there were no brigands.
A footfall made him turn. The blonde woman stood in the doorway, a lighted torch in her hand. The brown wool tunic was patched and sewn, but her legs were bare above rawhide carbatines and her long hair still held bits of straw and rushes.
Slowly she walked around the little hut, touching the flaming torch to the dry thatch, finishing the task the bandits had begun and then abandoned for a better sport. When the hut was burning fiercely, she hurled the pitch-soaked stick through the doorway. She turned and looked at him out of red, swollen eyes.
“I'm ready now. Let's go kill those Burgundians.”