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His arrow struck deep in the deer's chest but missed the heart. The animal struggled to get up, tangling itself in the tall grass and making a painful mewling sound that caused his throat to tighten. Dragging one leg, he limped toward it. Though always a heavily built mansturdy, he preferred to think of himselfhe used to get around effortlessly. But age had taken its toll, coupled with the fevers that had plagued him these past few months.
His doctors demanded he avoid roast meat. Who were they to tell a king what to do? Boiled venison was not so tasty, and he intended to savor a properly prepared roast tonight.
Charlemagne drew his sword, the blade catching the late-afternoon sun and taking on a molten cast. He couldn't stand to see the animal suffer. One slash across the throat finished it.
"Cette epee, ma chere amie, a deja tue," he said. This sword, my friend, has already killed. A great many men. He spoke French to accommodate his aide, his tongue halting around the words. He much preferred the Germanic dialect of the Ripuarian Franks, or Greek or Latin, or even the exotic-sounding Arabic that he fancied. But his aide was not well versed in languages.
The two men dragged the deer back to Charlemagne's home.
He cleaned his blade first, then bathed and dressed for dinner, wearing a linen shirt against his skin and matching breeches. Over this he wore a dark tunic trimmed with a pale silk fringethe one bit of finery he allowed himself. He preferred to dress like a commoner, leaving all but one jeweled ring in a chest by his bed. Lastly, he put on ivory hose and comfortable shoes. He left the room, but returned to check himself in the mirror. There were guests to consider tonight, and he wanted to appear well-groomed.
Despite his years he remained good-looking, tall but not overly so, with a thick, squat neck and a nose that belonged on a bigger man's face. His hair was white, but there was an abundance of it. He arranged the curls with his fingers, squared his shoulders, pronounced himself acceptable and went downstairs.
Among the dinner guests he was about to greet was his son Louis, whom he had recently crowned. It would be good to see him again and to speak of politics and alliances. No doubt someone would ask to hear tales from one of his great battles. Charlemagne had been engaged in one clash after another throughout nearly all his reign, usually at the front of his scara bodyguard squadrons. But sometimes alone when there was no one to bear witness.
Always with Joyeuse in hand. Mon epee. He patted the scabbard. Three decades of fighting, more than a dozen wars, and now this sword was relegated to putting a deer out of its misery.
Perhaps he would regale those gathered with that final push he'd orchestrated to conquer Saxonia and to convert the barbarians to Christianity. It was a good story, and he didn't mind retelling it. Then he would excuse himself and retire early, as he planned to venture out again at first light. A few more days of hunting, then he would travel to Aachen, given the onset of November. He'd come to enjoy hunting animals far more than he'd ever enjoyed hunting men.
Though he would work at it doggedly for those few days, fate would grant him only one undersize buck. Charlemagne's plans to return to the hunt in the spring would never materialize, as he would fall ill with pleurisy.
"Joyeuse," he said, as he took to his bed a final time. "Mon epee."
A servant placed the sword at his side.
Charlemagne wrapped his thick fingers around the pommel. This sword, his one constant companion, gave him some measure of peace.
"Joyeuse, ma tres chere amie" He took one more breath, and died.
The sword was her one constant companion. It was a yard of double-bladed steel, honed impossibly sharp. Though a priceless relic, it was not a showpiece suited to a museum. It was a dealer of deathher servant and master, good fortune and wretched curse. Once belonging to Joan of Arc, shattered and mysteriously re-formed, it had come to her along with a destiny to wield it wisely.
The lights from the train station were diffused by the thin fog and distorted the blade so it looked like a ribbon of darkened silver. Annja swung it above her head in a flashy move meant to rattle her less-skilled opponent.
"Eh a armes egales!" he cried.
French was one of the several languages Annja knew. Fight on equal terms, with equal weaponry.
He wielded a switchblade, which was no match for her sword. He should have fled as his two companions had moments ago, but he stood there, puffing himself up with the bravado of youth. The night and the mist hid some of his features, but Annja could tell he was probably still in his teens, given the acne scars on his face. He stank from going too long without a bath and wearing clothes tinged with the grime of Paris. His breath smelled of vodka, which meant he'd consumed a generous amount, likely adding to his courage. His hair stuck up at all angles, held in place by something that smelled vaguely sweet.
"All right," she said. "I'll fight you on equal terms." With a thought, she dismissed the sword, relegating it to the otherwhere where it hung, waiting for her to summon it again.
He glanced quickly at the ground and into the shadows. Not spotting the sword, he returned his full attention to her. "Pute!" he spat.
With a clipped laugh, Annja crouched to meet his charge. He didn't disappoint her, darting in and slashing forward, a quick jab typical of street brawlers. The tough lacked finesse, but he was burly and mean, and those traits helped compensate for his deficiencies.
She sidestepped and brought up her foot, catching his ankle. He stumbled, but managed to keep his balance. He whirled toward her, eyes narrowed.
"Espece de pute!"
"Quite the limited vocabulary," she taunted, again waiting for his rush.
"De merde," he replied. "Putain de merde!"
Annja made a tsking sound and waved her finger at him.
"Livrer aux chiens!"
"No," she said. "I'll throw you to the dogs. Actually, the police."
She'd come here looking for a fight. She'd needed the exercise and a distraction, from an assignment she had no interest ina two-part segment for Chasing History's Monsters. Her TV show's producers were really reaching into the bottom of the barrel for legends to sensationalize. Familiar with Paris, she knew to avoid Les Halles, Le Chatelet and Gare du Nord this late at night, when the crowds had disappeared. So that's precisely where she'd ventured. Les Halles and Le Chatelet had yielded no opponents, but Gare du Nord and its shadowy side streets had brought out this fellow and his now-absent friends.
Tourists traveling alone around the old train station were warned to keep a low profile and to avoid wearing jewelry that might entice thieves. But Annja had done the opposite. In the sequin-trimmed cocktail dress she'd worn earlier to dinner, emerald necklace dangling in the low V of the fabric, she'd trolled back and forth like a fisherman after bass.
This fellow's fluid, if vulgar, French was tinged with some kind of accent. Probably from one of the Roma camps, she guessed. France had declared war against the illegal encampments that had sprung up around Paris, evacuating many of the immigrants living there. But pockets still persisted. Paris news agencies had been reporting on the Romany gangs preying on travelers arriving from London on the high-speed trains. Now Annja was preying on one of those gang members.
He shuffled to his right, putting his back to an old stone wall and tossing the knife into his other handtrying to rattle her. His breath was slow and even, and his crouch was similar to the horse stance of the swordsman. Annja waited for him to make the next move, knowing full well he was weighing her with anger in his eyes.
A moment later he came at her, this time stabbing at her side, then wheeling and darting at her again. The move was unexpected, and he managed to slice her dress. Annja cursed herself for underestimating the youth. A street brawler, yes, but somewhere along the line, he'd had training. She appraised him more carefully. The sleeves of his shirt were tight around his biceps, suggesting muscles. His calves were thick, too. Certainly not the common ruffian she'd originally considered him to be. As he came forward and jabbed at her, then shuffled back, she realized his moves were those of a boxer.
"You might make a better opponent than I thought," she told him. By the look on his face, he didn't understand English. She repeated the sentence in French.
"I've been called that before," she returned. He pointed the knife tip at her throat and made a gesture with his free hand.
"Yes, I gathered that you want my necklace." When the corner of his lip turned up in a snarl, she added, "I'm rather fond of it. A gift from an old friend."
He continued to come at her, jumping in and back, swinging his knife and alternately punching with his free hand. He didn't connect with anything, but he didn't give up. She moved out of his way each time, but kept him close, not wanting to discourage him. She was in heels, and the spikes caught in the cracks of the brick and threatened to topple her. It would have been easier to slip out of them, but she didn't want easy tonight.
"Tu peux crever, connasse!"
"No, I'm not going to die tonight," she said. "But neither will you. We're just playing, aren't we? Like children looking to run off a little steam?" And in the process teaching you a lesson, she thought. "Ducon lajoie," she called him, half surprised at herself for stooping to his level.
The words enflamed him and he sped up his rushes, sweeping the blade in a wider and wider arc, his anger making his moves more erratic and easier to dodge.
"Du-te la dracu!" he shouted.
It was Romany now, not French. And though Annja knew only a smattering of the language, she figured out that he'd just told her to go to hell.
"Not tonight," she repeated.
The exertion felt good, like the welcome burn from a long jog through Central Park. She kept her breathing steady and deep, drawing the smells of the place into her lungs. Oil from the trains, a trace of exhaust from cars that trundled by on the main street nearby, urine, and dampness and mold; it had rained here a few hours ago. And there was the smell from her assailant, stronger now because he'd been working up a sweat. She picked up a trace of cigarette smoke, which she hadn't noticed before. The kid had that addiction, too.
"Maybe a stint in jail will help you with some of those bad habits. Clean you up a little, eh?"
He jockeyed for position, which allowed her to step onto the sidewalk. Easier on her heels. He cursed again, a mix of Romany and French this time. Annja surprised him and took the initiative, stepping in and thumping him on the chest with her open hand. Finally he was showing signs of fatigue, but he still wasn't giving up, his predatory gaze lingering on the emerald necklace.
"The man who gave me this said it was four hundred years old, give or take a decade. Worth as much for its historic value as for the gems." She knew he couldn't understand her. "You'd probably fence it for a few cases of Alize Bleu."
The dance had managed to wash away her fatigue. The past four days had taken her under the city, to the famous Paris catacombs stretching back to Roman times, when they'd been excavated in the harvest of limestone. Annja had been there before, to tunnels that served as the meeting ground for secret societies, the birthplace of spooky legends. Even into the chambers where long-buried skeletons were stashed to make room for more bodies in the city's overcrowded cemeteries.
She'd walked through halls lined with bones and ancient graffiti, helping her cameraman figure out which angles to shoot fromno doubt beneath the spot where she and her opponent stood now. As many as six million dead were believed to crowd the labyrinthine network, some of them killed during the French Revolution.
The tunnels had been covered on television before, sometimes from a historical perspective or a military one; German soldiers had used a chamber during World War II as a bunker, she knew. Programs had aired about the reported ghosts, disembodied voices and shadows that followed tourists. Annja's assignment had been to find something fresh, and so she'd interviewed tour guides, as well as several workers who'd hauled away rubble from some of the collapsed areas. The floating, hazy orbs they'd recently spotted seemed to be the fresh take she was looking for.
As always, she found the place fascinating. A skilled archaeologist, she had an affinity for ruins. But she also believed the tunnels had been done to death. She hadn't wanted to come to France, anywayit was a place of nightmares for her.
Joan of Arc had been lashed to a pillar in the Vieux-Marche in Rouen and burned at the stake in 1431. After her horrible death, her body was burned a second time and then a third, the ashes scattered into the Seine. Annja was somehow connected to the holy martyr, and her sleep on occasion was cut through with fiery images.
But while France held nightmares for her, it was also a paycheck. At least this week. She'd finished her work shortly before five today, showered, dressed in the only couture outfit she'd brought to the city and took her cameraman to Pierre Gagnaire's in the eighth district for fish terrine. She was certain her little dance here had worked off the calories from the rich and expensive dessert. Maybe it was time to call it a night.
Her opponent took a few steps back and cocked his head, listening. She listened, too. There were the muted sounds of the city: cars trundling past on the main strip, the clacking departure of an aging train, the soft strains of a Thierry Cham zouk R & B tune that dissipated to nothingness, and a syncopated slapping that grew louder and announced the return of the hood's companions. They'd brought help. Altogether there were seven of them.
"Chamelle verolee!" the one she'd been fighting shouted. He grinned widely, revealing his crooked teeth and a stud through his tongue.
Annja felt for the sword in her mind, but waited. She delivered a roundhouse kick to her dancing partner, her pointed heel jabbing his stomach. His breath knocked out of him, he doubled over and dropped the switchblade. Without pause she kicked him once more, angling higher and pounding her foot against his chest. He slumped to his knees, cursing. To make sure he wouldn't be entering the fray again, she administered a quick neck chop, which rendered him unconscious.
Then she devoted her attention to the remaining six.
"You will die for that," the tallest said in English, his Romany accent apparent. He brandished a gun and pulled the trigger.