It’s a two-day ride from Turin to the fortress of Casale in the neighboring duchy of Monferrato. Nominally neutral in the conflict between Savoy, Genoa, and Milan, the duchy sits at the junction of all three states, and soldiers from each criss-crossed the duchy in recent months with only token resistance from the duke, Ferdinando Gonzaga. The raid on the Lisowczycy encampment in which Riordan O’Neill seized the Poles’ banner was actually in Monferrato, Razmann, the German colonel, notes, as the duelists ride toward Casale.
The invitation from the graf von Hentzau specified five duelists, and the comte de Challons asked Riordan, Razmann, Captain Vaile, and the baron de Saint-Jurs to stand with him. Surgeon Guillaume Sébastien is invited by the count as well, of course, and the party is accompanied by a handful of servants, including Riordan’s lackey, Jean-Luc.
Challons places Vaile, the chevau-légers fencing master, in charge of arranging the specifics of the duel for the French soldiers. Each man is permitted two pistols and a sword – no daggers or bucklers, he explains. Vaile outlines the tactics: the duel will open with pistol fire, then the opponents will close with their swords. This is a mêlée, not individual duels, he continues, so watch for one another. Later, privately, Vaile speaks to Riordan and Razmann, pointing out that among the five, Saint-Jurs is the weakest swordsman.
Vaile also counsels Guillaume. The Norman soldier pulls a mazzagatto from his boot-top and urges Guillaume to conceal it on his person. “Remember, it has no range, so put it right up to the target when you pull the trigger,” Vaile advises.
They are met on the morning of the duel by a squad of Monferrini guards sent by the governor of Casale. The servants must remain behind, the commander advises. but Guillame is allowed through provided he gives up his sword, with a trio of guards to watch over him as the duel is fought. The formidable bastioned walls and long line of outworks protecting fortress Casale loom in the distance as Vaile gives his final instructions – concentrate fire on the Imperial left flank, ride hard and close fast. Armor is adjusted, pistols checked and re-checked, thumbs run along the edges of shining blades. Challons rides at the middle of the line, with Razmann and Riordan on the left and Vaile and Saint-Jurs on the right. Plumes of white ostrich feathers wave from the top of Challons’ helmet as the five guide their horses toward the bare ground before the city. Faces are crowded atop the walls of the city.
Topping a small rise, they see their five opponents on the field before them – and across the river, a company of Spanish musketeers.
The duel begins without ceremony.
Spurring the horses forward, the five French soliders quickly close on the Imperials. Riordan’s gaze sweeps over the enemy – two men, one of them a hulking brute, dressed in the kaftans of the Poles on shaggy horses, a long-mustached Albanian in a buff coat and dented helmet, a plumed carabinier he takes to be the count, Hentzau, on a tall black Holsteiner, and the fifth, a cuirassier in polished black armor chased in silver on a fog-grey Andalusian.
Pistols crack and a cheer goes up from the crowd gathered on the walls of Casale and the musketeers across the Po. Challons grunts as he’s hit by the concentrated fire of the Imperials but remains in the saddle as the French close and blades flash in the cool morning air. Riordan closes with one of the Poles, on the right of the Imperials’ line, and rapier and sabre ring against one another, and Riordan scores first blood, the tip of his rapier slicing through the Pole’s buff coat. Again and again the Musketeer’s rapier finds its way past the other’s guard as the Pole’s parries grow more desperate. With a turn of his wrist, Riordan’s riposte slips past the sabre into the Pole’s chest – the duelist’s eyes open wide, then roll back as he falls from the saddle to the ground and lies still.
Quickly looking about, Riordan sees Vaile’s sabre slip from his hand, snagged on a rein, but to his left, Razmann appears to be in trouble, his boot covered in blood. The Cossack grins as he slashes at the Mainzer, seemingly oblivious to his own wound, a bloody cut to his scalp from Razmann’s rapier. Riordan spurs his horse toward the Cossack, his rapier striking his man in the left arm, then wheels toward him again – this time the Musketeer’s rapier snaps the Cossack’s sabre!
Watching the battle unfold from a small rise, Guillaume notices the Monferrini sergeant eyeing him. Reaching for his instrument case, the doctor attempts to palm a dagger he concealed within, but the seregeant notices the movement and demands the case. Guillaume explains that he uses it for amputations, but the sergeant, apparently a veteran soldier with some experience of surgeons’ instruments, is unconvinced.
Satisfied that Razmann can deal with the Cossack, Riordan wheels his horse and lunges at the Albanian, but the sabre breaks Riordan’s rapier! The Musketeer turns once again, the broken end of the rapier in his hand, just as the Coassack tackles Razmann from the saddle, sending both men crashing to the ground. The Albanian’s sabre slashes against Riordan’s cuirass, and the Musketeer spurs his horse into the Albanian’s. As the man struggles to regain control of his mount, Riordan charges toward Razmann and the Cossack – dropping from the saddle, he thrusts the broken blade of his rapier into the Coassack’s throat. With a gurgling gasp, the brute staggers back in a shower of blood and falls to the grass.
The Musketeer takes Razmann’s rapier and remounts, tossing his spare pistol to the Mainzer colonel, and then closes on the cuirassier in the black armor – the latter is on foot, his right arm limp and bloody, reaching for his dropped sword with his left hand. Both Riordan and Challons call on the three remaining Imperials to surrender, and Hentzau and the Albanian hesitate, but the cuirassier simply smiles and comes on guard with his longsword in his left hand.
Riordan’s mount surges foward but the cuirassier parries the blow, and with a sharp snap, the borrowed rapier is broken by the other’s gleaming longsword. Challons joins Riordan now, as Vaile cuts down first the Albanian, then Hentzau. The cuirassier continues to defend himself, against Challons and now Vaile, but the end is near, and the Spanish musketeers across the river know it – their cheers are turning to outraged cries, and musketfire begins to pepper the duelists. Dismounting, Riordan grabs the cuirassier and drops him to the ground, and the man in the black armor passes out with a groan.
As the musketfire grows more intense, Challons urges the men to leave the field, but he stands resolute in the saddle, oblivious to his own wounds, and the others hesitate as well. Riordan runs to Razmann, to help him mount, then grabs the unconscious cuirassier and throws him over the pommel of his own saddle as musketballs whiz around them – one of the balls even strikes the unconscious duelist on his breastplate.
On the rise, Guillaume is suprised with the Monferrini sergeant turns around with a pistol in his hand. With a crash the sergeant shoots Guillaume in the chest, and the doctor’s world goes dark.
As Riordan and the other duelists quit the field, he sees three riders emerge from the gates of Casale, racing toward the hilltop where Guillaume lies wounded, even as the three Monferrini soldiers flee. The trio rescue Guillaume and recover his horse.
Rallying together at last, the five French duelists are exhausted but exultant. Only Riordan and Saint-Jurs are unscathed, though Vaile’s wound is minor – both Challons and Razmann are badly hurt however, as is Guillaume, with a pistol ball in his chest. The leader of the rescuers is introduced as the chevalier de Courtenay – he is Razmann’s contact inside Casale, and he saw the doctor’s plight from atop the gate where he waited with spare horses.
Their servants recovered, the party heads for Rosignano, to find a surgeon for the wounded duelists, including the captured cuirassier.
Honor, the spur that pricks the princely mind – George Peele