Exiled from Paris by order of the king, the adventurers – Riordan O’Neill, King’s Musketeer; Guillaume Sébastien, physician and polymath; and Bruno Faucon, fencing instructor and man of mystery – along with Riordan’s comrade-in-arms, Barthélemy de Courtivron, and a lackey, Jean-Luc, are travelling to Grenoble to join a mercenary company belonging to the comte de Challons.
Warned that the Cardinal‘s agents are seeking them, the group avoids the king’s roads. Courtivron, a native Burgundian, serves as the group’s guide. At his advice, the five travel south, following the left bank of the Yonne, past the town of Auxerre, to the Cure River. They continue along the Cure, past the town of Vézelay; huddled around a small table in a tiny country inn, Courtivron mentions that his brother, Philippe, is a Franciscan monk at the convent in Vézelay, but that he doesn’t dare contact him – while Philippe would never betray them, many among the regular and secular clergy serve as contacts for the Cardinal, through his loyal confidante, Père Joseph, a Capuchin friar. The Musketeer wryly notes he doesn’t dare let others in his family know his situation; his father, the baron de Courtivron, and his brother are both committed Cardinalists.
The going is painfully slow. The spring weather consists of alternating days of pouring rain and clear sunlight. The ground is soaked and soft, and streams which in summer flow turgidly around waving bunches of reeds are now swift-moving torrents filled with winter runoff. Courtivron warns that the going will only get slower as they cross the Morvan, a rugged, densely wooded massif that sits in the heart of Bourgogne.
The boar out of the wood
As the travellers head higher into the Morvan, Courtivron can no longer rely on his own experience, and a guide, a farmer’s son, is obtained. Crossing the forested canyons along a little-used trail, they begin dropping toward the town of Autun. One afternoon they hear the sound of others moving through the woods a distance away, the sound of hunters beating the brush. Suddenly the bushes part and a wild boar, a grizzled grey beast with a broken tush and red-rimmed eyes, dashes toward the travellers, charging with a loud grunt straight through the horses. Guillaume’s flintlock pistol speaks and the ball finds the animal’s flank, but it seems unfazed by the wound as it races toward Bruno’s horse.
Riordan spurs his horse foward, rapier aimed low, and sticks the animal as he charges, the blade biting deep into the boar’s meaty shoulder and eliciting a furious squeal from the beast. Blood spattering its wiry fur, the boar turns away from the horsemen, hurtling toward their guide, standing paralyzed with fear.
Courtivron’s wheellock pistol cracks, and the ball finds its mark, behind the boar’s ear; with a grunt it crashes snout-first to the wet ground and lies still.
The forest grows quiet, then the sound of the hunters resumes, now moving toward the adventurers. Guillaume quickly surmises the hunters heard the pistol shots, and mindful of the penalties for poaching game and unsure on whose land they stand, the adventurers move away quickly. As they ride, the sound of the hunters disappears behind them, leaving only the dripping of water off leaves and needles and the splash of their horses’ hooves on the wet duff.
Madness sold by the bottle.
One night, as the travellers huddle on thin straw pallets in yet another deplorably rustic country inn, Courtivron suggests catching a barge in Chalon-sur-Saône and taking the river to Vienne, then following the king’s road through Voiron to Grenoble. He is concerned about the effect of the hard travel on the horses, and notes that the terrain will grow even more rugged if they don’t follow the rivers and roads. The trade-off is the increased risk of discovery by those who might wish the travellers harm, but all agree with Courtivron’s proposal. At Courcelles, a small village on the outskirts of Chalon, Courtivron leaves the group to arrange passage, reasoning that his local dialect will attract less attention that Riordan’s Norman accent or Guillaume’s Breton burr. Everyone else retires to an inn for the night.
Sitting in the common room of the inn, huddled over their mugs of cheap wine, amongst a score or so of the local farmers, the tired travellers are a wretched sight, their disheveled clothes rent and muddy from the hard going. Through the door of the inn strides a muscular man in the garb of a laborer, arms bulging from the sleeves of his woollen blouse. He greets the assembled throng with rough humor, and is recognized in turn, grudgingly by some. His eyes light on the travellers, and he approaches their table, his hands on his hips as he looks down on them. He mocks the adventurers’ haggard appearance, adding with a glint in his eye and mocking disdain in his voice, “Gentlemen drenched in mud are gentlemen trying not to be seen.”
Riordan and the laborer exchange words, and the Musketeer challenges the man to arm-wrestle for a mug of wine. A table is cleared and the two men take seats opposite one another. To everyone’s surprise, the match lasts merely a moment, with Riordan the victor. As a barmaid approaches with the winner’s mug, the laborer, his brow furrowed and his jaw thrust forward, takes the cup and pours the contents in Riordan’s lap.
In a single motion, the Musketeer rises and throws a punch at the glowering laborer, but the blow misses. The Burgundian aims a vicious kick at Riordan, his wooden clog striking the Musketeer in the groin. Riordan’s iron codpiece takes the brunt of the blow, but the Musketeer is still staggered by the kick and he grabs the farmer in a tight hold. As the latter struggles to break free, two more men stand up from a far table, their faces bearing an unmistakeable family resemblance to the first, and advance across the room. Guillaume and Bruno observe another man run out the door of the inn as they approach the grappling pair.
Riordan twists and hurls the surprise laborer toward his equally astonished compatriots. stopping them in their tracks. As the latter help the first man, muttering curses, to his feet, the Musketeer’s hand drops to his rapier and a handspan of steel flashes between the guard and the scabbard, but the trio are undeterred; the first man hefts an empty chair, another draws a dagger, and the third shatters a bottle on a table edge. As the trio advances, the Musketeer pulls his rapier and main-gauche.
Unnoticed by the three laborers, Guillaume and Bruno rise from their seats, and draw their blades as Riordan aims a thrust at the first Burgundian, who attempts to block the blow with the chair. The Musketeer’s rapier is too fast for the brawler, however, and he stabs the man once, then again, in the thigh. The Burgundian drops his knee with an anguished cry as his leg goes out from under him. The other two attack as well, the broken bottle leaving a scratch on Riordan’s buff coat, the dagger parried harmlessly aside.
Guillaume attampts to lightly slash the man with the dagger, but he is too careful and his blades whistles harmlessly past. Bruno, on the other hand, drives a handspan of his own rapier into the lower back of the man with the bottle, who cries out, then sinks to the floor and moves no more. The last man doesn’t hesitate, dropping his dagger to the packed-earth floor and raising his hands in supplication.
Jean-Luc is dispatched to the stable to retrieve the surgeon’s tools, and in short order both men’s wounds are sewn shut; the Burgndian’s leg is splinted as well, and both of the injured men are carried home by other patrons of the inn, to contemplate the error of their ways.
As the surgeon works, a priest arrives, and calls the travellers to account for their actions. He listens as Riordan, using Jean-Luc’s name as his own, explains the circumstances. The priest listens carefully. “I know the nature of these men,” he says, nodding at the three laborers; apparently satisfied as to the circumstances of the fight, adds, “I expect to hear your confessions in the morning, gentilhommes.”
Assured of absolution come the dawn, Riordan proceeds to seduce the barmaid; in the morning, the true sins of the night are revealed, as the Musketeer considers cutting off his own arm with his rapier rather than wake the slovenly trull sleeping on it. On the walk to confession, the young swordsman contemplates the synergy of hard travel, cheap wine, and adrenaline on his libido and his judgement.
Liers in ambush
Courtivron once again delivers, arranging passge by barge for the men and their mounts to Vienne, at the cost of 16 £ each. Propelled by the rushing waters of the Saône and Rhône, a journey of nearly a week on horseback passes in two days as the barge floats through Tournus and Mâcon, Villefrance and the ancient city of Lyon, to the quays of Vienne. The travellers waste no time, setting out eastward toward Grenoble, unaware that their presence was observed by parties with an interest in their passing.
Toward the end of the first day, the road to Grenoble passes over a range of hills, the Côte de Saint-André, before dropping into a wide, flat valley, the Plaine de Saint-André and Plaine de Bievre, a dry, grassy waste good for little but goat pasture. Caught out in the middle of this valley, the travellers note a group of riders, seven in number, descending the hills along the road at their backs, galloping hard. At first the travellers consider simply moving off the road to let the riders pass, but the realization sets in that the riders may in fact be pursuers. The wide, level plain offers little in the way of cover; quickly checking the road ahead, the travellers note a pair of wagons approaching. As they draw closer, the wagoneers are revealed to be Gypsies; the men and boys walk alongside, shepherding a trailing herd of goats, while the women drive. Initially eager to build a tabor, Riordan discards the idea of comandeering the wagons, unwilling to put the Gypsy children at risk. Instead the travellers decide to make a dash for the far side of the plain, to find cover from which to confront their pursuers.
The slower pace of Jean-Luc’s mule allows the chasers to gain ground on the travellers, but not before the latter reach the woods on the far side of the valley as the sun dips close upon the surrounding peaks. A scraggly forest and a stony hill are near to the road; leaving the horses and mule in the care of the lackey, Riordan, Guillaume, Bruno, and Courtivron ascend the hill and ready their pistols.
Soon the riders heave into view, and spying the travellers among the rocks, waste no time drawing their own pistols and offering a volley. Five of the riders dismount; one takes charge of the horses as they others storm the hill, the remaining two continuing to load and fire from the road. One of the attackers is felled by a shot to the leg, falling to the ground amid a flurry of curses, as the other three gain the heights. Riordan cuts down one, then another, as Guillaume and Bruno battle a hanger-swinging bravo and Courtivron trades shots with the riders still on the road. Satisfied that the doctor and the swordsman can handle the bravo, Riordan charges down the hill toward the riders remaining at the bottom. With three of their comrades down, and a fourth hard-pressed by a pair of swordsmen at the top of the hill, the three bravos decide to retreat; the two mounted men take off at a gallop while the third man tries to mount, only to be laid low by the flashing blade of the Musketeer. Guillaume and Bruno succeed in rendering their man hors de combat, giving the travellers, along with the man wounded in the leg, two prisoners.
Among the travellers, only Courtivron is injured, grazed on the head and the right arm by the bravos’ pistol balls. As the dying sun makes its final plunge below the peaks, Riordan and Guillaume assess the loot from the battlefield: three matchlock pistols, three longswords, two hangers, a half-dozen daggers, and five of the bravos’ horses – under the jerkin of one of the dead bravos is a purse containing forty-four silver livres. Turning to the two prisoners, the conscious bravo is interrogated by Riordan; with the Musketeer’s boot grinding into his wounded leg, the bravo reveals that he and his mates were hired in Vienne, by parties unknown to him, to kill the five men, earning five livres each for their trouble. “It was strictly business,” he gasps through clenched teeth. His story remains the same after the surgeon is allowed to treat this wounds, and after the second prisoner is roused and interrogated, confirming in broad outline the facts of the first, the travellers are satisfied.
Couting the silver pieces taken from the dead leader’s purse, Guillaume concludes that he was holding out on the others – the honor of thieves.
The travellers discuss what to do with their prisoners, whether to turn them over to the provost-martial in Grenoble or simply kill them and be done with it; Courtivron’s firm rejection of the latter plan convinced the others, and with the prisoners bound on the backs of the captured horses, the victors find lodging in a nearby village for the night. The next day finds them in Grenoble at last.
The group splits up: Guillaume and Bruno head for the Auberge des Dauphins, to meet Lieutenant Gourjon and arrange the first proper lodging for the men since they left Paris, while Riordan and Courtivron make their way with the prisoners to the Palais du Justice. The military magistrate’s dragoons take charge of the prisoners, and the two Musketeers are ushered into a small office, wherein they find themselves under the stern gaze of Major Salomon Mageron, provost-martial of the duc de Lesdiguières. The one-armed soldier inquires as to their identity, and listens to the story of the fight against the bravos on the road from Vienne. He listens carefully, asking a few questions for clarification, his face expressionless.
After making them repeat the account, Mageron says nothing until they are done, after which he announces he received a missive from no less than the Chancellor of France himself regarding their impending arrival. He proceeds to warn both men, but Riordan in particular, against dueling and other killing in Grenoble. Finally, he asks if the Musketeers knew Lieutenant Gourjon, before announcing, “Gourjon’s been missing for nearly two weeks now.”
At the auberge, at almost exactly the same time, the surgeon and the swordsman hear the same words from the innkeeper.
Mageron goes on to ask if either Riordan or Courtivron could think of anyone who might go after Gourjon to get to them, but neither man can offer any explanation for the lieutenant’s disappearance. After a few more questions, the Musketeers are dismissed, to join their comrades at the inn.
I now walk into the wild. – Christopher McCandless