Terror filled the brown mare's huge, dark eyes. Her gaze caught Joshua Lock's as he marched briskly through the barn; a look that held him, stopping him mid-stride. Deep in the big corner stable used as a foaling-box, a groom stood at the sweating mare's head and slapped her soaking neck. She shivered violently, swirling clouds of steam from her pain-wracked body into great, ghostly spectres that rose to the roof beams.
"Are you saying you can do nothing?" A voice loaded with anger came from inside the stable, out of Lock's sight. He stepped closer.
"I've told you," a second voice said, "the foal is twisted. Each time she pushes it becomes more wedged. It simply will not come out. I've done my best, I'm afraid."
"You do realise how valuable it is?"
"That makes not one jot of difference, captain," the second voice was affronted, "as you must well know."
In the short silence that followed, Lock saw the mare strain again; her hind legs spread, knotting muscles in her back and quarters as another contraction took hold. Her whole body trembled in a desperate effort to expel the thing stuck inside her. But only a tiny trickle of bloody fluid dribbled from her vulva; the foal had not budged. Then the mare's muscles relaxed, contractions ceasing. She staggered slightly to one side. She must have been in labour a long time. Now she was tiring.
"Cut it out," the first voice said, with a chill that prickled the hairs on the back of Lock's neck. "Save the foal while it still lives. At least I shan't suffer a total loss."
"Just do it."
All Lock's instincts warned him against interference, but ignoring them was an old habit, hard to give up. He stepped into the stable, crossing the shadow thrown by its front wall.
The captain proved a total stranger. That was no surprise to Lock since the cavalry barracks at Brighton served as a staging post. Squadrons, even whole regiments, came and went with increasing regularity. He recognised the man's red-jacketed uniform, though. A dragoon, an officer of the heavy cavalry; men who still considered themselves an elite, far superior to their light dragoon brethren.
The captain spun at the scrape of Lock's boots. "Sergeant?"
Lock stiffened to attention, "Can I help, sir?" he threw a smart salute
"I doubt it," the captain replied curtly, immediately turning back to the other man. "Well - get on with it."
Lock saw the veterinary surgeon's hesitation. Still, he reached into a black leather bag, drawing out a wickedly-curved knife. But they would need to cast the mare before butchering her, so Lock still had time. He coughed as if clearing his throat.
"Still here, sergeant?" The dragoon captain's voice brimmed with annoyance.
"Beg pardon, sir," Lock said, "but I wouldn't be doing that."
"Oh, wouldn't you? You're dismissed, sergeant."
Lock stood his ground, "...on account of killing the foal."
"That's utter rubbish," the captain was indignant..
"Seen it before, sir," Lock countered. "Shock'll kill the mare and it passes straight on to the foal, however quick you try to get it out." He paused, "Let me try, sir."
"Foaled many mares have you, sergeant?" The captain's tone still mocked, but Lock thought he detected a slight thaw.
"A few, sir, over the years."
"But none like this, I'll warrant." The veterinary loitered, carving knife in hand. The captain turned on him again in frustration, "For God's sake, Cummins, fetch your casting ropes, man."
Lock clicked his heels together loudly before saluting once again. "Very good, sir," he said, and then more quietly as he turned away, "What a waste of all that money..."
"Ah - sergeant?
Lock turned back, "Sir?"
The captain gave him a hard stare, "So - you believe you can save them both."
"Worth a try, sir."
"Then you shall try, sergeant. And you will succeed. That foal is sired by a grandson of Eclipse. You've heard of Eclipse, I take it?"
Lock nodded, uncaring. The foal's father might have been a donkey.
"It's worth five-hundred-guineas," the captain emphasised, "alive. And alive it must be, sergeant." He narrowed his eyes. "If it is not, I shall have the value docked from your pay."
Lock was aghast, "But sir..."
The captain appeared not to have heard."...and be in no doubt," he went on, "I have that power. I've an uncle at Horse Guards."
Bullying bastard, Lock thought. But it was his own fault; he should have simply walked by. "I'll do my best, sir," he said through gritted teeth.
"Don't forget, sergeant," the captain said. "Alive." He turned to the veterinary surgeon, "Come along then, Cummins. I need a drink, if one is to be found in this damned stink-hole."
"Wait," Lock called to the veterinary surgeon as he left the stable. "Are you sure it's alive now?
"It was, last time I checked." Cummins' voice cracked with relief. He gave Lock a guilty look over his shoulder. "Foreleg right back and the head: good luck to you, sergeant," he muttered.
Jesus Christ, Lock thought.
At least they had left behind a pail of scummy water. Lock stripped off his jacket and shirt before plunging his hand into the bucket. Scrabbling around its rough wooden base he found what he had hoped for: a small cake of soap, slimy and cold. He soaped his left hand and arm, scrubbing hard at the skin to raise a lather.
The captain's groom still stood at the mare's head. He slapped her neck again as she suffered another contraction, with as little result as that Lock had first witnessed. "Foaled a mare before?" Lock asked the groom hopefully. The man gave him a frightened look and shook his head without speaking. Lock could not blame him; keeping a job with a master like his must be hard work in itself. He stepped up behind the mare and pulled her tail to one side. "Hold her, now," he warned the groom before gently inserting his soapy hand into her vagina.
The foal's right foreleg was presented normally. Lock touched one tiny hoof and slowly slid his fingers upwards. Cursing himself for his large hands, he wriggled his fingers, feeling for the other front leg. It should be lying alongside its pair, but he found nothing. Moving his hand back to the foal's right leg he leaned in towards the mare's quarters, fingers sliding upwards from fetlock joint to knee, then forearm. By now he should have been able to touch the foal's head. It was missing. Perhaps the foal was deformed: legless, headless, maybe. Lock had heard of such crippled foals being born alive; he had even seen one born with no eyes, just empty, staring sockets.
He found the foal's neck, bent back, its angle so alarming Lock struggled to identify it. Then the other foreleg, pointing in completely the wrong direction. Lock blew out a long breath. The bloody captain was right. No wonder the veterinary had sounded grateful for Lock's intervention.
Alive. The warning pricked Lock's conscience. He moved his hand back to the foal's forearm, fingers working feverishly. Feeling, for the spot where one big blood vessel ran just below the skin. Then he had it. Pressing his forefinger hard against the leg, squashing the vessel against bone, he concentrated. He must be sure the pulse he felt was the foal's, not his own. It was there; thready and indistinct, but the foal still lived. Lock carefully withdrew his arm. He would need help with this one, but the groom was obviously useless. He strode to the stable door and bellowed, "Matthew!"
Trumpeter Matthew Picker trotted past the heads of stalled horses, meandering slightly in his course to avoid those he knew might snap their teeth at him as he passed.
Truth to tell Picker was becoming bored with the drudge of barracks life. He simply did as he was told by those more senior, ignoring snide remarks from other ranks; those who deigned to speak to him, at any rate. Picker wished Captain Killen had taken him along to wherever he might have gone. Acting as the captain's servant might be considered a menial task by many, but Killen was not like most officers, he reckoned. For a start, he always thanked the trumpeter for any service rendered, however small. And with the captain, you never really knew what was likely to happen next, especially with Sergeant Lock about.
Picker stopped at the foaling-box, surprised to see Lock shirtless, one arm dripping soapy mucus. "Problem, sarge? he asked, innocently.
While Lock waited for Picker to return, he gathered up straw the mare had kicked across the brick stable floor, piling it around where she stood. It would help cushion her fall if she suddenly collapsed. Lock worried as he studied her. She had stopped trembling and her sweaty neck was drying. A bad sign, Lock realised. He told the groom to offer his charge water, but the mare refused to drink.
"Only thing I could find, sarge." Picker skidded into the stable carrying a pair of pristine cap lines. Knowing the trumpeter's reputation for scavenging, Lock had told him to come back with a length of soft rope, not too thick. Cap lines would do very well.
"Stores never missed them," Picker said, "some officer'll just have to watch his fur cap don't blow away."
Lock looked at the knotted circular tassels adorning the ends of each line. "Cut the flounders off, Matthew, then get over here and help me."
There was only one way the foal would come out, Lock knew. He had to get its head and trapped foreleg to engage. That meant untangling them inside the mare. He must push the foal back into her uterus as far as his arm would stretch. Pushing sounded arse-backwards to him, even though he knew he was right. Once he managed it he should be able to pull the foal's twisted foreleg forward. Provided, of course, the mare let him, but she seemed so exhausted he hoped any further contractions would be feeble.
Lock re-soaped his arm. Inside the mare the foal was still wedged in its original position. Now things would get more difficult. He put his hand against the foal's chest, pushing gently, increasing the pressure until he felt its small body move slightly. Lock shoved hard, forcing the foal further back. He wriggled his hand to the right until he could feel the angle of the foal's shoulder. But its trapped leg still refused to fall forward.
Perhaps the mare realised Lock was trying to help for now she rallied. A new contraction took hold, pushing the foal towards him. Lock tried to resist the mare but her powerful uterine muscles crushed his arm. She was forcing him out, along with the foal. At last the spasm stopped. Lock slid out his arm, wriggling numbed fingers. He cursed aloud. The foal was back where it had started.
"Put a loop in the end of one line," Lock ordered Picker in frustration. This time he took the rope in his hand before pushing his arm back inside the mare, catching the loop over his first two fingers, keeping its free end in his palm. He had to go through the whole procedure again, pushing the foal back inch by laboured inch, the whole time praying the tired animal would stay quiet. Inside the mare up to his armpit, sweat stung Lock's eyes; he wiped his forehead against her dark brown rump.
Lock felt for the trapped foreleg. By stretching his fingers as far as they would go he could just reach the foal's bent knee. He hooked a finger in its crook, tugging at it, bringing the limb just far enough forward to drop the loop of rope behind. Now he just needed to thread the loop with the rope's free end.
"She's starting again," Picker warned.
Lock dropped the rope but he was too late withdrawing his hand. The mare pushed hard, trapping fingers against the foal's shoulder blade. Lock felt the contraction squeeze the blood from his hand. He grimaced, ignoring the pain. Pushing back at the foal's body as heavily as he could he willed it to stay. All he had needed was a few more damned seconds and the trapped leg would have been freed.
The mare's contractions seemed to go on and on, as if in one last, valiant effort to give birth; to avoid a lingering death. Now, Lock was tiring. Arm numbed, if the mare overpowered him this time he would barely have the energy for a further attempt. He felt the foal move.
"Matthew," Lock gasped, "lean against me for God's sake!"
The negro's shoulder dug painfully into Lock's spine but Picker's extra weight was working; the mare's failing strength proving no match for two men. Lock felt the pressure on his arm ease. The contractions faded. He flexed his fingers, trying to stave off the pins and needles of blood coursing back through crushed vessels. Miraculously, he found the rope's end. He threaded it swiftly back through the loop.
Picker must have seen the mare relax. He pushed himself away from Lock's back with a grunt.
"Grab the rope," Lock panted, "where it sticks out." Although both ends were inside the mare, a length still protruded. Enough for Picker to grasp. "Slowly," Lock warned, feeling the rope tighten against his hand. "No - the other side. You're pulling the end back out of the loop."
Picker understood. This time Lock felt the loop tighten around the foal's foreleg. "Pull the other end right out," Lock instructed once Picker had the rope's cut end in his hand. "Now - pull when I tell you. Ready?" Once more Lock leaned his weight against the foal's chest.
"Pull!" The foal's trapped foreleg slowly unbent. "Nearly there," Lock muttered, half to himself. He heaved with all his remaining strength, shoving the foal's body as far back as he could. The leg popped into place.
Lock sagged. But he could not stop now; the twist in the foal's neck would only be made worse by pulling the trapped leg forward. He must get the head around. The mare staggered to one side.
Picker hurried round to lean against her hip, physically keeping her upright. "Best hurry up, sarge."
"I'm trying, damn you." Off balance, Lock grabbed at where he knew the foal's head should be. One finger slipped up a nostril before he found the animal's lower jaw.
The mare staggered again. "Keep her up, Matthew." If she fell with Lock's arm inside it would likely dislocate his elbow. He pulled at the tiny head. Mercifully it came free; the foal's neck untwisted.
Even such a small triumph gave Lock renewed energy. He reached out to Picker for the other rope. One leg now protruded from the mare's vulva and he looped the rope around the slim fetlock. "Leave her and grab these two," he told the trumpeter, "Pull both when I tell you." Lock needed to withdraw the foal's head at the same time. He put his hand in the animal's mouth, grabbing its jaw, "Now pull!"
Both hooves were out. Lock still had the foal by the head, but hard as he and Picker tugged it stuck again. Just when both men desperately needed the mare's help it seemed she had given up, though she was still on her feet. "Push now, you bloody bitch!" Lock shouted at her in frustration.
All in a rush the foal shot towards them. Taken by surprise, Lock stepped back. He lost his footing on slimy straw and fell backwards, foal crashing onto his chest in a soaking, gangling heap.
Spluttering through bloody fluid and membrane covering his face, Lock heaved the limp little body to one side.
Picker bent over the foal. "It's dead", he said glumly.
"It'd better not be." Lock struggled to his knees. He slapped the foal's scrawny ribcage. Nothing. Grabbing the foal's head, Lock tore away the membranes still covering its nose. He blew down its nostrils. "Come on, you bloody thing." There was no response. He thumped at the foal's ribs again, "Breathe, you little bastard."
The foal sneezed, spraying Lock with more ooze. But this time he did not care. "Get some straw," he said to Picker with undisguised relief, "and give it a good rub all over."
Lock sat exhausted, with head bowed, slumped against the stable wall. He had sent Picker off to return the cap lines to wherever he had scrounged them from. And in search of the mare's owner, to give the arrogant dragoon captain the good news. So when he heard the scuff of boots enter the stable, Lock did not even bother to look up.
"I see your manners haven't improved," a gruff voice said.
Lock started to climb to his feet, "Major Hughes..."
"Stay there, lad," Jonas Hughes sounded amused. "You look all in."
Lock stood anyway, wincing as he stiffened to a salute. "How are you, sir?" he smiled at his old squadron commander.
"A damned sight better than you, it would seem." Hughes looked at the mare, still on her feet and nuzzling at the lying foal. "Difficult birth?"
"You could say that, sir. Owner told his veterinary to cut it out - save the foal while it was still alive."
"Bloody idiot," Hughes said in disgust, "would have killed them both. Then you stuck your oar in, I suppose?"
Before Lock could reply, more footsteps approached. The dragoon captain swept through the stable door in a flurry of scarlet coat-tails and gold-hilted sword. Hughes stepped back a pace into shadow.
"So, sergeant, you fail...," the captain began. He caught sight of the foal stretched out in the straw. "Why, good Lord..." He stepped hesitantly towards the mare, apparently not quite believing his eyes. "They are...unharmed?" he barked at his groom who nodded mutely, still hanging on grimly to the end of the mare's leadrope.
"Well..." it seemed the dragoon was struggling for words, "well..." He stopped abruptly, staring at the mare's genitalia. "She's torn, sergeant."
Lock sighed. A small nick in the mare's vulva was the only legacy of all his pulling and heaving. "It's nothing," he said tiredly. "It'll heal up in a week or two."
The captain strode across to stare Lock in the face. "That was not part of our bargain, sergeant," he said, "not part of it at all. The mare's damaged, and as such I will need to be compensated."
Hughes stepped out of the shadows. The dragoon took a pace backwards in surprise before throwing him a salute. "My apologies, major. Didn't notice you come in." He sounded puzzled.
Lock noticed Hughes gave the captain one of his 'who the devil are you' looks.
"Captain Lombard, 3rd Dragoons. At your service, sir."
"Hughes," the major muttered, "20th. And may I congratulate you, captain, on a fine foal. A colt, too."
"A great-grandson of Eclipse, major," Lombard preened, "and quite valuable."
"No doubt," Hughes said gruffly, "and all thanks to Sergeant Lock, here, it would seem."
" I'm not so sure..."
"Oh, but I am, captain. You see," Hughes went on, "I have always found the sergeant quite a resourceful character. As good at handling horses as sabreing Frenchmen. Did you know he once trained a group of Portuguese peasants well enough to charge French dragoons in battle?"
"No, probably you did not." He stared pointedly at Lombard's unblemished sword hilt, "Not served on campaign, have you, captain?"
Lock saw the dragoon take in Hughes' threadbare dolman, legacy of the major's years of active service. His glance travelled down to the battered sabre hung low at Hughes' left thigh. "I've not had that honour as yet," Lombard replied warily.
"So - I think Sergeant Lock deserves a reward, for services rendered so to speak: don't you?" He held out his hand, "Three guineas should suffice."
"Three...three guineas?" the dragoon spluttered.
"A cheap enough price for a live foal. Especially one so valuable."
"But this is..."
"Is what, captain?" Hughes' voice hardened. Lock recognised the steely glint in his eye. "You expect free services from one of His Majesty's employees...for private business?"
The major had his man by the balls, Lock saw. Angrily Lombard thrust one hand into a jacket pocket before slapping coins into Hughes outstretched hand. "This is outrageous, major. I shall complain of your conduct...to my uncle at Horse Guards."
"I see." Hughes' moustache bristled. "Of course," the major almost smiled, "that is your affair entirely, captain." He emphasised the dragoon's lower rank. "Perhaps, at the same time, your relative may wish to pass my regards to Lieutenant-General Wellesley, whom I met with there only yesterday."
Lombard's face mirrored his indecision. Finally, he sketched an angry salute before stamping his way from the stable.
"You must have worn out a couple of horses to get here so quickly," Lock remarked flippantly.
"Poetic licence for that bloody arrogant buffoon," Hughes snarled, "but you never heard me say that about your superior officer, sergeant." He raised his voice, "And don't think I can't see you lurking outside the door, Picker; get in here!"
The late regimental trumpeter saluted with a flourish, "Sorry, major," he said meekly, "I'd been looking for that captain everywhere."
Hughes grunted, spotting the ropes still trailing from Picker's hand. "Where the devil did you steal those?"
"Just borrowed them, sir. I was taking them back, honest."
"I'm sure, but they're only fit for the furnace now," Hughes pointed out. The cap lines Lock used to drag the foal from its mother's womb were as stained and bloody as the sergeant's soaking woollen overalls, never mind missing their decorations. "Hold out your hand." Picker obeyed. "Take those filthy strings back to the quartermaster," Hughes went on. "Tell him I authorised their use." He dropped two of Lombard's guineas into Picker's outstretched hand, "And give him those."
"And you," Hughes said to Lock, once Picker had left, "deserve this." With a practiced thumb he flipped the third guinea in the sergeant's direction. Lock snatched it in mid-air.
"Best spend it pretty damned quick," Hughes advised, "because you're going on a trip - abroad." Lock gave the major a quizzical look.
"As is Captain Killen," Hughes said. "Seen him lately, have you."
"Not for days, sir," Lock said. "A letter arrived, official looking, and he disappeared."
"In that case," Hughes sighed with evident relief, "I believe I know where I'll find him."
Tras Os Montes, Portugal
Captain Paul Tirenne's horse collapsed so suddenly he had no time to kick his feet out of the stirrups. His head smashed into the rocky ground, the sound of a gunshot still ringing in his ears. Half stunned, Tirenne tensed himself, ready to rise, but stopped as the cold muzzle of a musket jammed into his cheek. He closed his eyes, cursing himself for his own stupidity and carelessness. He was a dead man. His wife would grow old a widow: the unborn child she carried would never know its father.
"Idiota!" the Portuguese with the musket shouted. "Why did you have to kill his horse?"
Tirenne kept his eyes tight shut. It would likely not be a good idea to show these men he understood their language.
A second pair of boots scrunched towards where the Frenchman lay. "An accident," the newcomer insisted, "I aimed for him. Is he dead?"
The first man snorted. The next thing Tirenne felt was sheer agony as the Portuguese booted him in the midriff. He curled up, clutching at his stomach.
"No," the first man said. "Good. We will discover what he carries before we have some fun with him."
Tirenne opened his eyes, shocked at the voice's spiteful menace. "I have nothing of value," he said in French.
"What did he say?"
The first Portuguese kicked Tirenne again then caught the shoulder of his coat, hauling him roughly to his feet. He motioned towards the dead horse with his head. "Search his baggage, Duarte," he ordered his companion.
Tirenne had deliberately not hidden the despatch he carried too deeply within his valise. After only half its contents lay scattered on the ground Duarte brandished the envelope in triumph. He brought it to the first man who released his hold on Tirenne's coat to tear the message open.
While the Portuguese looked at the paper, Tirenne flicked his eyes about, checking desperately for any possible avenue of escape. His gut ached abominably, but he had not noticed Duarte reload his musket. It seemed likely only the first man's weapon was primed. If he could just...make a grab for it.
"What does it say, Eduardo?" Duarte was obviously keen to discover whether the two peasants had found anything of value.
"You know I cannot read their language," Eduardo said. "In any case, it is just numbers."
Duarte stepped forward, staring at the page over Eduardo's shoulder. He shook his head. "Ò Falcão will know what it means."
Eduardo seemed to come to a decision. "We will sell it to him. What else is there?"
Duarte returned to Tirenne's valise, carelessly tossing the Frenchman's spare shirt and smallclothes into the dirt before unearthing a small flask of spirits hidden deep in one corner. Uncorking the bottle, he took a sip. "Brandy," he reported to Eduardo, "that is all."
Eduardo grabbed a handful of Tirenne's coat again. "Where is your money?" the Portuguese demanded. He rifled the Frenchman's pockets without success.
Tirenne played dumb. But the Portuguese was obviously not satisfied. He dropped his musket to the ground before whipping out a long knife from behind his back. He pricked its razor-sharp point into the soft skin below the Frenchman's right eye, "L'argent!"
Tirenne stood as still and straight as his body would allow. He had left it too late; there was no hope now of going for the musket. He rolled his eyes downwards. Eduardo followed his gaze to where a sabretache hung low against the Frenchman's left leg. "Duarte - here!"
"What is it?"
Eduardo put a little more pressure on the knife. Tirenne felt a trickle of blood run down his cheek. "Check his purse," the Portuguese instructed his companion before he noticed the gold band on the Frenchman's left hand. He did his best to pull the wedding ring off but it was a tight fit behind the knuckle. Eduardo glared at Tirenne. "That will wait," he muttered, blasting foetid breath into the Frenchman's face.
Kneeling, Duarte thrust his hand into the sabretache and brought out a handful of silver coins. Eduardo grunted, "He must have more." He moved to one side, making certain the knife stayed painfully in Tirenne's face, "Look inside his coat."
Duarte stood to unbutton the Frenchman's greatcoat, exposing his uniform. He took half a pace backwards. "He is an officer?"
"Then he must have more money," Eduardo reasoned. "Taking his eye will make him talk." He moved as if to thrust the knife home.
"No, Eduardo," Duarte spoke urgently, "Ò Falcão will be angry. You know he will pay gold for an officer, but not one who has been...hurt." He stepped closer. "You have heard him speak," he reminded Eduardo insistently. "Would you wish him to be angry with you? I would not."
Eduardo hesitated, then lowered his knife. Tirenne slowly let out a breath. "You are right, my friend," the Portuguese admitted. "Bring rope." He gave the Frenchman a savage grimace. "Ò Falcão will discover what else you have hidden."
Tirenne walked with difficulty alongside Duarte's horse: years of riding rather than marching had left his feet soft, and after less than a mile he could feel sores on both heels where his boots chafed the skin raw. The Portuguese had retrieved two mounts hidden further down the track, before roughly tying the Frenchman's wrists together in front of him. A longer rope led from the improvised handcuffs to an iron ring on the horse's saddle. Tirenne studied it closely while he waited for Duarte to climb aboard but its fixings looked secure enough to withstand more than just a good tug. Escape would have to wait.
Eduardo brought up the rear, mounted on a grizzled mule. No wonder he was angry with Duarte for killing the horse, Tirenne thought. He stumbled on the rough ground, drawing a curse from Duarte and a sharp jab in the back from Eduardo's musket.
As the day wore on, the Frenchman found increasingly difficult to stay on his feet. Long leather boots turned from comfortable riding wear into instruments of torture, rasping at the skin of his feet with every step. His lips cracked through lack of water, and though he tried hard to imagine himself stood before a hearty meal he could not persuade his dry mouth to produce any saliva. Eduardo and Duarte regularly refreshed themselves as they rode along, each gulping noisily from wineskins hung on their saddles, but neither offered him so much as a mouthwash.
Just before nightfall the Portuguese stopped to make camp. Tirenne's leadrope was tied to a convenient tree and just for good measure Eduardo lashed his raw ankles together. Exhausted though he was ,through the night the Frenchman worked by feel on the coarse rope binding his wrists, desperation driving him through lack of sleep, until his fingers bled from his efforts. But by dawn he had still failed to loosen a single knot and he almost cried out in his hunger and frustration.
Moving soon drove the dew from Tirenne's clothes. He walked mechanically, stumbling more often from tiredness than his sore feet, each time drawing curses from his captors. The Frenchman hardly noticed they had come to a small huddle of houses until Duarte reined his horse to a stop, yanking the Frenchman's lead so hard he almost fell over.
Eduardo dismounted, striding across to one tumbledown building, the only part of which seemed in good repair being its stout, timber door. He rapped on it. Tirenne heard a fierce shout from inside without being able to make out what the voice had said.
The Portuguese pushed warily at the door.
"What is it?" This time Tirenne heard the roar clearly.
Eduardo snatched off his broad-brimmed hat, clutching it deferentially to his chest. "Ò Falcão," he stammered, "w-we have a prisoner for you."
"What?" the voice roared again. "Where?" The crack in the door widened and a wild-haired, figure poked out his head. "What prisoner?" he demanded loudly.
"There," Eduardo pointed to where Tirenne stood half-hidden by Duarte's horse.
"Aha!" Ò Falcão threw the door wide open and stepped into the street. Tirenne was surprised to see he wore the fancily braided jacket of a British hussar, dusty and unkempt though it was. But what drew the Frenchman's attention most was the black patch the man wore to cover his left eye.
"He carried a message," Eduardo said, producing the creased paper the Portuguese had found in Tirenne's valise.
"Excellent!" Eduardo staggered slightly from Ò Falcão's apparently friendly slap on his shoulder. Then Tirenne found himself studied intently by a single beady eye. The man grabbed his top lip, lifting it to expose the Frenchman's teeth.
"As you always wish, Falcão," Eduardo confirmed.
Ò Falcão grunted in satisfaction."Then drag him inside. And his baggage."
Eduardo and Duarte manhandled Tirenne onto a single wooden chair, the only furniture in the dimly room apart from a small table onto which were emptied the contents of the Frenchman's valise and sabretache.
It seemed Ò Falcão's temper suffered badly when he learned what had become of Tirenne's horse. He sent the two Portuguese away with angry words, demanding they find another, before beginning to pick through the Frenchman's belongings.
"Captain Paul Tirenne." Ò Falcão leafed through the Frenchman's papers. "You're a long way from the Garde Chasseurs, captain."
Tirene almost started at Ò Falcão's impeccable French.
"And with a pregnant wife, too, Tut, tut." He picked up the captured despatch and brought it across to where Tirenne sat. "You know how to translate this?"
The Frenchman hardly looked up as the coded message flapped in front of his face. Despite himself, he shook his head.
"No matter, I know someone who can." He stuffed the despatch inside his jacket before grabbing Tirenne's hands. "You're damned lucky Eduardo didn't cut your fingers off to get at your rings," he remarked. He forced the Frenchman's right hand palm upwards, exposing the signet ring deeply engraved with the outline of a bee, a secret Tirenne had somehow kept concealed from the two Portuguese.
"Well, well. This letter must be important for the Emperor to send it with so trusted an aide."
An Englishman, Tirenne realised with a jolt; Ò Falcão was a British officer!
"Perhaps I should have let Eduardo persuade you to talk," Ò Falcão said thoughtfully.
Tirenne jerked his head up to face the other man. "So you would let them kill me," he said in English, his throat tight.
Ò Falcão laughed, sticking to French. "That depends, captain, on how much information you have for me."
Tirenne slumped back, "You know I can tell you nothing."
"A pity." Ò Falcão cocked his head at a noise from outside. "Get up," he ordered Tirenne as he crossed to face the Frenchman.
Tirenne's hands were still bound in front of him. He struggled to his feet.
"You insist you know nothing?" The Frenchman clamped his mouth shut and gave a small shake of the head.
"Then I'm sorry, captain." Ò Falcão's fist smashed into Tirenne's face, sending him sprawling to the floor. He heard the chair legs scrape stone. In dread anticipation the Frenchman curled himself into as tight a ball as he could before the chair whistled past his head, smashing to splinters on the flags.
The door opened a crack: Tirenne felt the cold draught against his face.
"What is it?" Ò Falcão thundered at the intrustion.
"We heard..." Eduardo's voice said hesitantly. "We wondered...if you were in need of help, Falcão."
Tirenne opened his eyes.
Eduardo's was staring at the blood streaming from the Frenchman's mouth, and the smashed chair. The Portuguese gave an embarrassed smile, "We are sorry," he said. "It is obvious Ò Falcão needs no help."
"This Frenchman you found me is tougher than he looks," Ò Falcão offered the peasant, though Tirenne thought he detected a note of grudging admiration. "I must take him to meet my friends: they will break him."
"But we can do that, for you, Falcão," Eduardo insisted helpfully.
Ò Falcão roared with laughter. "No doubt you can, but my friends have more subtle ways than your bloody butchery."
The Portuguese seemed to take Ò Falcão's words as a compliment. He nodded his head vigorously, "Of course, Falcão." He hesitated, seemingly afraid to ask, "But... you will still pay us, as you agreed?"
"Of course." Ò Falcão drew a leather purse from beneath his coat, throwing it towards Eduardo.
The Portuguese caught it one-handed. "We will catch more Frenchmen, for your return," he promised.
"Aye, well make sure you feed and water them this time," Ò Falcão said, "not like the last bugger you starved to death."
Tirenne ran his tongue gingerly over his split lip. The blood had dried but the cut still stung where his saliva wet raw edges.
Ò Falcão insisted they leave the village immediately. Afraid a peasant might accept money to report his presence, Tirenne thought. Betrayal was an ever-present danger.
The horse Eduardo and Duarte produced for the Frenchmen to ride must have been the cheapest they could find, and judging by its bony hips and ribcage was not long for the slaughterer. It continually lagged behind Ò Falcão's much fitter animal, forcing Tirenne to continually kick at its sides to keep up. Although his hands were still tied, resting on the pommel of the saddle, his captor had dispensed with the long leadrope. The omission gave the Frenchman a glimmer of hope, but since Ò Falcão carried sabre and carbine as well as a brace of pistols holstered on the front of his saddle, chance might be a fine thing.
"You never told me, captain," Ò Falcão asked, when the horses were level with one another, "why this particular message to Marshal Soult is so important as to be worth risking an officer such as yourself."
Tirenne recognised the subtle flattery was designed to catch him off guard and stayed silent. Away from the Portuguese he grew a little more confident. At least he felt it unlikely this man would commit murder should he fall asleep, though his 'friends', whoever they were, might behave differently. "And you never told me why they call you The Falcon," he answered.
The Englishman chuckled, "A long story, captain." He paused as if undecided whether to explain further, but relented. "For some reason the natives are inordinately fond of nicknames. I hear there's one fellow - another Englishman by all accounts, down south somewhere: they called him Jericho after he led a bunch of peasants against French cavalry."
"Sergeant Lock." Tirenne said the name without thinking.
The Falcon hauled on his horse's mouth, bringing the animal to an instant halt. "You know him? he asked in amazement.
"We have met," Tirenne said drily, "on several occasions."
"Good God," The Falcon shook his head in wonder. "That's just the sort of man I could use. Sounds a real pirate."
Tirenne glanced at the Englishman's eye-patch with amusement. "An apt description..." he began.
Both horses threw up their heads.
"What the devil...?" The Falcon gave his mount a swift kick but the animal refused to budge. Tirenne felt his horse tense. It took a half-step backwards.
Further up the track stretching before them a pair of wolves stepped out of the undergrowth. One sat unconcernedly in the centre of the roadway.
"Caught their scent," The Falcon kicked at his fretting horse's sides before drawing a pistol. The frightened animal spun a half-circle while he struggled, reins in one hand, to level his gun at the wolves before pulling the trigger. The pistol exploded; acrid smoke blew into his face. "Bugger off, damn you," he yelled at the wolves as they fled the noise. And Tirenne was gone.
Terrified by the smell and noise, the Frenchman's horse whirled half-off the road. It was now or never. Tirenne booted the animal in the ribs, increasing it's blind panic, not caring where its flight took him so long as it was away from the Englishman. The pair careered off the track, the Frenchman unable to steer thanks to his bonds, trusting the horse was sure-footed enough not to fall and break both their necks.
The animal hopped over boulders in their path, swerving sharply to avoid stunted trees and bushes, almost throwing Tirenne from the saddle. He clung on grimly as the scared horse galloped over ground so bad he would have jibbed at crossing it on foot. But eventually the animal began to tire. He soothed at it with his voice. The horse trotted, then walked. At last it came to an exhausted halt, sides heaving, body flecked with foamy sweat.
Tirenne slid wearily from the saddle. He had no idea where he was and The Falcon might have followed. He scanned the hillside they had just descended, holding both hands above his brow to shield his eyes. Nothing. That did not mean he was safe, but it was a start. He must free his hands, he decided, but he had no knife; no weapon of any sort. And the horse would need to drink soon.
The Frenchman looped the horse's reins over his tied wrists, leading the animal slowly, tracing the base of the hill. It might scent water, as many thirsty animals could, he thought. He might find a sharp stone along the way to cut through his bonds. One thing he was certain of was that he must find a way to deliver his despatch. Because the letter the Englishman had taken was merely a copy. The original still rode on Tirenne's back: a stiffener, stitched into the collar of his uniform.