October 1812: Britain and France are still at war.
France is engaged on two battlefronts—Spain and Russia—and her civilians are growing weary of the fight. Rebellion is brewing. Since Napoleon Bonaparte appointed himself as First Consul, there have been several attempts to either kill or overthrow him. All have failed, so far! Meanwhile in London, Bow Street Runner Matthew Hawkwood has been seconded to the foreign arm of the Secret Service. There, he meets the urbane Henry Brooke, who tells him he’s to join a colleague in Paris on a special mission. Brooke’s agent has come up with a daring plan and he needs Hawkwood’s help to put it into action.
If the plan is successful it could lead to a negotiated peace treaty between France and the allies. Failure would mean prison, torture and a meeting with the guillotine.
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A Thriller in Napoleon's France
By James McGee
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2014 James McGee
All rights reserved.
He heard the rattle of musket fire and ducked instinctively. The horse grunted and stumbled and for one heart-faltering second he thought it had been hit; but the animal had only lost its footing on a rock loosened by the previous night's storm. Ahead of him, he saw Leon fighting to control his own mount as it scrambled for purchase on the treacherous, water-soaked terrain.
It was still raining, but the heavy downpour that had turned mountain stream into raging torrent and earthen track into quagmire had finally abated; transformed into a steady, and persistent drizzle. The easing of the weather, however, had not eliminated the risk of injury from a carelessly placed hoof. All he could do was hang on, trust in his steed, and pray that the ground remained firm beneath them.
Dawn had broken half an hour before but there was neither warmth to the day nor any evidence of sunrise, only a low ceiling of slate-tinted cloud. A gunmetal pall hung across the landscape, drenching the customary ochre-coloured hills in gloomy shades of grey.
Leon yelled a warning, indicating the crest of a ridge a quarter of a mile ahead and a row of figures outlined like stone statues on a balustrade; French infantry. At that range their bluejackets were unmistakable. A foraging party, he guessed. They were shouting and gesticulating wildly, waving their hats in the air. Some were crouched down and he assumed it was from those men that the shots had originated. Their cries carried like excited bird chatter and he realized they were yelling directions to the dragoons emerging at a gallop from the village behind them. He was immediately conscious of his own scarlet jacket and white breeches. Despite their grubbiness and the poor light, in contrast to Leon's grey coat, clay-coloured trousers and black bandana, they made a tempting target. He hunched down in his saddle, tightened his grip on the reins and drove his boots into the mare's flanks. Another fusillade sounded. It would have been a miracle if any of the musket balls had found their mark, even allowing for the downward trajectory, but it didn't stop him spurring his horse on even faster.
There was very little cover. What there was consisted of thorn bush and sharp outcrops of rock with olive trees dotted in between which, with their trunks stunted by the wind, had the look of old men bent and wizened with age.
He risked a glance over his shoulder. The dragoons were crouched low over their horses' necks; a couple had drawn sabres. They were not that far behind, and gaining ground rapidly. Beyond the knot of green-clad riders, he could see the village clinging like a limpet to the side of the hill. Idanha-a-Nova; it wasn't much of a place—a small church with a thin, square tower rising above a spiral of whitewashed houses—but it had provided a welcome respite from the storm. They had been fed and watered by their local contact and he'd slept comfortably, until rudely awakened with the news that a French patrol was searching houses at the other end of the street, which had resulted in their frantic and undignified dash for freedom.
He looked back and hope flared in his chest as his eyes settled on the sweep of wooded slopes that had appeared through the murk. He followed Leon's lead and turned his horse towards them. The trees would provide a guard against musket fire and grant them a chance to give their pursuers the slip, allowing them time to make their escape to a more permanent hiding place; providing the gods remained on their side.
The gods, however, appeared to have other plans.
His heart sank as he realized the wood was composed of dwarf oaks which were neither tall nor dense enough to shade them completely. The trees would probably mask their flight from the dragoons but not from the soldiers on the summit who would have the advantage of height and thus a clearer view of their passage through the thickets. But they were better than no trees at all.
Sure enough, no sooner had they reached the first line of oaks than the calls from the onlookers on the high ground intensified. Even the hoof-beats couldn't mask the cries of the infantrymen as, stirred by the thrill of the chase being enacted below them, they encouraged their mounted compatriots to greater effort.
They reached the wood. By this time the enemy riders had closed the gap to less than three hundred yards. He felt an immediate wave of relief as the oaks closed in around them. Branches whipped at his face and snagged at his clothing as he steered his horse deeper into the trees. He could feel the dampness seeping through the lining of his jacket and the thighs of his breeches. He could feel his heart, too, beating like a drum.
He scanned the ridge through the overhanging limbs. The soldiers were still signalling madly. He looked away, concentrating on the path. To his consternation, the gaps between the trees were narrowing. Their progress was being hampered. The gods were definitely against them.
Without warning, Leon reined in his mount. He twisted in the saddle and spoke urgently in Spanish. "We stand a better chance on foot."
He hesitated and then decided it made sense. On foot they'd be less visible to the troops on the high ground. He nodded and they both dismounted. Pointing the animals in opposite directions, they slapped them hard on the rump to set them moving. Then they ran.
He was content to let Leon lead the way. The Spaniard was lightly built with tousled black hair curling away from the nape of his neck. A neat goatee framed his jaw. His brown eyes were bright and intelligent and set in a face scorched brown by the sun. A scar, part-hidden by the beard, ran from the corner of his chin to a centimetre below his left ear. Despite the disfigurement, he was a handsome man whose looks suggested he'd be quick to smile and share a jest; though not this morning. In the sullen light, Leon's normally animated face was set in a grim mask of determination as he concentrated on the task in hand: keeping them safe.
The sword at his hip was becoming a menace, but the weapon had been a staunch ally to him over the years and he was not about to discard it like an old shoe. He unhooked the scabbard from his belt and, holding the sabre like a baton, picked up his pace. His ears caught the jangle of metal; the dragoons were in the trees. Unless it was their own mounts doubling back towards them. That would be ironic, he thought.
A small clearing came into view. They sprinted across it, keeping low. A musket ball, even from the higher elevation, would never reach that far but he still felt the hollowness in his throat knowing how exposed they both were, though he also knew the French would want to take him alive. He was more valuable to them alive. Dead meant he couldn't be exchanged for one of theirs. Dead, he wasn't worth a damned thing, except perhaps a reason for the Duke or even Marmont to raise a silent glass and for someone to carve a notch into the hilt of his sword.
They cut left. The trees thinned suddenly and they were out in the open once more. He could hear the dragoons thrashing through the foliage behind them. They would have to dismount, too, and that would give him and Leon the edge. The ground rose before them in a series of small terraced fields bordered by dry stone walls. Two enclosures away another patch of woodland beckoned: more oak trees. Up on the ridge, the infantry were running, keeping pace.
His chest was hurting now; so were his legs. He spent more time in the saddle than he did on foot and it was beginning to tell on his lungs. Leon, despite his wiry frame, also looked and sounded as if he was struggling. And the gradient wasn't helping. They came to the first wall and clambered over it. By the time they had negotiated the second one, the dragoons had emerged from the trees.
And they were still on horseback. Somehow, they had found a way through. Realizing from the tracks that their quarry was now on foot, they had known that by remaining mounted they'd have the upper hand once they were clear of the wood. Baying like hounds, the scent of victory in their nostrils, the dragoons dug in their heels.
He tried to ignore the burning stitch in his side.
As they reached the last barrier of stone before the woods began again, a volley of shots came from their right. He heard the crack as a projectile struck the wall a few inches from his arm. There was movement to his left; more riders, approaching fast. They were close enough for him to see their scarlet-edged epaulettes and the diamond motif on their helmets. Directed by the troops on the hill, the dragoons had split their force in two, with one party having circled the wood in a bid to cut them off while the other had remained to the rear, driving them forward, like gamekeepers beating grouse before them into the trap.
God-damned Frogs! he thought, acknowledging that the French had played the game well. Then he was over the wall and clawing his way towards the shelter of the next stand of oaks.
He could hear Leon trying to suck in air. The Spaniard was labouring. His face was streaked with rain and sweat. As they hauled themselves into the trees, the dragoons were less than a hundred paces away. The drumming of hooves was as loud as thunder and he could feel the earth vibrating beneath his feet.
The Spaniard drew a pistol from his bandolier and a knife from the sash at his waist. "Run!" he urged. "Save yourself!" His features contorted.
"No, we go together!" As if a pistol and a knife would have made a difference, anyway, he thought.
They staggered on, shoulder to shoulder.
Leon was the first to go down. One moment he was in motion, the next it was as if the Spaniard's legs had turned to porridge. The transition was almost leisurely, bordering on comical; as if someone had slipped him a slow-acting sleeping draught. He managed to keep going for another dozen steps before his legs finally gave way and he collapsed on to his knees, chest heaving.
They had separated and he was ten paces in front when Leon fell. He heard the Spaniard's exclamation of defeat and turned back in time to see the first of the dragoons explode into view, followed swiftly by half a dozen more.
Leon raised his pistol. A shot sounded and he fell back clutching his shoulder, the pistol dropping from his hand.
Running back, he started to pull the sword from its scabbard and found himself confronted by a semi-circle of plume-helmeted horsemen, their carbines aimed unerringly at his head.
He halted and gazed back resignedly at the look of triumph on their faces. It was over. There was nowhere else to run, nowhere to hide. He slid the sword into its scabbard and waited as the dragoon lieutenant got down from his horse and held out his hand. He handed the sword over. The lieutenant took it, nodded wordlessly then walked over to Leon, who had raised himself to a sitting position. His face had lost its colour. Blood from his wound was oozing from between his fingers. He let the knife drop to the ground.
The lieutenant stared down at the Spaniard.
"Cretin!" he spat and withdrawing the sword he drove the blade down through Leon's throat. Leon's legs kicked convulsively and then stilled. The dragoon placed his boot on Leon's chest, freed the blade and wiped it on the Spaniard's jacket before returning it to its scabbard and calmly remounting his horse.
It took a second for the shock to sink in.
"You utter shit! God damn your eyes, you bastard! He was no threat to you!"
He screamed the words in English.
The dragoons made no attempt to stop him as he ran to the body. Other figures were hurrying towards them through the trees; the infantry from the ridge had arrived.
He sank to his knees, ignoring the wetness soaking into his breeches, and gripped Leon's hand in his own. He stared down at the man who had been his friend and at the blood-stained, rain-dampened moss beneath the ruined throat. He heard footsteps approaching from behind.
A voice spoke in English, with a marked French accent.
"Get up, Major."
The rage bloomed in his chest. He started to turn.
"Get up, Major." The order was given again.
And his eyes opened.
"Time to get up, Major."
The hand was still on his shoulder as he reached for the pistol beneath the saddle he'd been using for a pillow, forgetting, not for the first time, that the weapon had been taken from him. The memory caused his face to harden. He moved his arm and felt for his sword. At least they had left him that. He traced the hilt reassuringly. The gesture did not go unnoticed by the man gazing down at him.
Dressed in the uniform of chasseur, the insignia at collar and cuff indicated he held the rank of captain. He was young, in his early twenties, with dark hair and soulful eyes. He looked concerned at having interrupted his charge's sleep.
"There's coffee by the fire. It's still hot." The captain, whose name was Fosse, gave a small, almost boyish smile. "But I apologize in advance. The taste is execrable."
Pushing the blanket aside, he watched the officer walk away and thought about the dream. It wasn't the first time it had come to him and he doubted it would be the last. He'd relived the nightmare a lot over the six weeks since his capture. During that time the anger he'd felt at Leon's death had not diminished.
They had returned his horse. It had been caught by one of the foragers on their way down from the ridge. He'd been allowed to mount up, only to have a sergeant of dragoons take the reins. Then, leaving Leon's corpse where it had fallen, they'd escorted him out of the woods. The infantry had returned to their foraging. The dragoons and their red- coated charge had retraced their path towards the village before turning north. He'd known immediately where they were taking him.
Marmont's headquarters; the army commander whose manoeuvres he and Leon had been tracking for the past two months. It occurred to him that Leon would have found that amusing.
The forty-mile ride along rutted, water-logged tracks, through wooded hills and valleys and across tarns swollen by rainfall, had been hard going. He'd travelled most of the way in silence, wrapped in his cloak, fighting the chill in his bones brought on by the weather, his grief at Leon's murder and an increasing awareness of the gravity of his situation.
When he arrived at Sabugal he'd discovered that word of his capture had preceded him. A small crowd had gathered; mostly officers who knew of his work and who, despite his being the enemy, had been anxious to make his acquaintance; to be able to say that they had shaken his hand.
The French were billeted in the citadel; a Moorish castle, the ramparts of which had been visible from miles away, long before he and his escort crossed the old stone bridge and entered the town. There he'd been questioned; first by Marmont's bloated, bad-tempered chief of staff, de la Martinière, and then by the marshal himself. He'd given them nothing, other than his name and rank; which they'd known anyway.
De la Martinière had wanted him shot as a spy. Marmont, an urbane man with a liking for the finer things in life and, fortunately, the antithesis of his subordinate, had asked him for his parole.
There was no doubt that both of them believed he'd been engaged in spying activities, but Marmont, unlike his foul- mouthed general and in adherence to the articles of war, had been unprepared to execute a British officer in uniform, accepting his word that he was not a spy but a field intelligence officer, a fine distinction but one which, nevertheless, reflected the acceptance of the code that existed between the two opposing armies.
He'd given his parole willingly for the advantages it allowed. Parole meant he'd still be a prisoner, but at least he would enjoy some freedom of movement so long as he agreed not to attempt to escape, not to pass intelligence to the British army or its allies, nor to serve against the armies of France, until such time as he had been exchanged, rank for rank. The agreement didn't say anything about gathering intelligence during his captivity and passing it on later.
Excerpted from Rebellion by James McGee. Copyright © 2014 James McGee. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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