Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Tales from the Crowned Radish: The Love of Chevalier Malartic (Part 2)

As I predicted, this year’s Nano has not gone well.  A combination of busyness and a growing lack of enthusiasm for this year’s project have left me woefully and increasingly behind.  Added to this, I am becoming increasingly certain that the idea won’t actually stretch to 50,000 words in any case.  As a final nail in the coffin lid of productivity, last week I contracted some sort of hyper-virulent, invariably terminal super-bug, no doubt cooked up in a lab somewhere by terrorists to be used as a biological weapon of global devastation. 

So those are all my excuses, neatly lined up for inspection.  The overall concept was a good one, and what I have written (just shy of 19,000 words) includes some good stuff, but I think the whole thing would benefit from a complete rewrite with significant changes.  My soul rebels at the idea of just giving up, and there are such things as glorious defeats, but I think I would be better off if I left this to simmer for a while before coming back to it, when I am a little less disheartened.

The main problem is that apart from a few sections, I have not enjoyed writing it, and I think that this shows very much in the writing.  I will leave it, and work on things that I do enjoy writing instead.

So, speaking of things I enjoyed writing, and to leave the whining and excuses to one side, I now give you the second part of my second story following those nefarious rogues and ruffians Malartic and Lampourde in The Love of Chevalier Malartic:

The Love of Chevalier Malartic (Part 2)

The year already being much advanced and a continuous rain having set in, it was already starting to get dark when the slim, cloaked figure of the girl left the tailor’s shop and hurried through the streets to run some errands for her father.  Even if she hadn’t been intent on her tasks and absorbed in her own thoughts, Annette had no reason at all to suppose that she was being hunted by dangerous and violent men.
            Hurrying along, she saw a beggar hopping towards her, one-legged and leaning on a crutch, his clothing ragged and his face obscured by the shadow of his hood.  As she approached, he held out his free hand.  “Alms miss?” he quavered hoarsely.  “Alms for an old soldier, what lost his leg in the service of His Majesty?”
            The street was quiet due to the weather, and there was no-one else in sight, so Annette drew back from the beggar rather than approaching.  The streets of Paris were the not the safest of places, and footpads and ruffians abounded even during the day, so she had every reason to suspect the man.  However her sensible caution was over-ridden by her naturally compassionate nature when the man’s crutch skidded in the mud and he began to pitch forwards. 
Instinctively, she stepped forwards to steady him, and her kindly impulse obviously pleased The Lord, for He caused a miracle to occur in that lonely, muddy little street.  Suddenly, the man’s missing leg reappeared, seemed almost to unfold itself from where it had been held up beneath the man’s coat, and the feeble old beggar suddenly became hale and strong.  He dropped the crutch, snatching the young woman up with one arm and clamping the other over her mouth.
It was the work of seconds to carry her, struggling and letting out muffled yells, into a nearby alleyway.  Here another man deftly gagged and bound her, and a sack was thrust over her head.  She was thrown over one a shoulder and carried swiftly away through the deepening gloom.
Lampourde locked the door while Espron lit several candles.  They were in the cellar of an empty house that had served them as a temporary prison a number of times before, and which already contained the ropes required to bind their prisoner to a chair.
            This done, Lampourde removed the sack from her head.  Annette Chaumont glared up at him, her hair considerably disordered.  She looked tired and pale, but quite unafraid.  Instead her expression was one of seething fury.
            “Cowards!  Villains!  Pigs!  Let me go or else!”
            This was the first time Lampourde had actually seen her up close and in the light, and was struck by how beautiful she was.  A slender figure, chestnut hair, clear blue eyes and the natural advantages of youth conspired to make an impression on Jacquemin Lampourde, a man who very rarely before had felt the least interest in women.  Very occasionally he had resorted to the strumpets of the Crowned Radish, but he took far less pleasure in the carnal act than he did in a good fight or an excellent plan well-executed.
            Nonetheless, he was determined to play his part.  He gave her a villainous leer and twirled his moustache.  “My dear, please calm yourself.  You need not fear, since you are only a temporary guest with us.  As soon as your father pays us a nice fat ransom, he can have you back.”
            She glared at him.  “You vile, crawling little worm!  My father is a poor man!”  She raised her chin.  “If you let me go now, I promise not to seek justice or redress.”
            The implied threat made Lampourde bark with laughter, while inwardly his heart swelled with admiration for this courageous girl who seemed not in the least afraid of the heavily armed ruffians who had her powerless.
            “My dear girl, remain quiet and give us no trouble, and we’ll return you to your family practically untouched.”  He gave her another evil grin, but this time his heart really wasn’t in it, and it came out lopsided and slightly sad.  Rallying himself, he continued.  “There’s no chance of escape, and no hope of being rescued.  No-one saw us snatch you up, and only a man of amazing resourcefulness and skill could possibly track you down.  Do you know such a man?”
            She looked him in the eye, not the least bit frightened.  “I do.”
            Lampourde blinked.  “You… you do?”
            “Yes I do.  He loves me, he will find me, and he will find you and bring you to justice if you don’t let me go immediately.”
            He tried for a wicked laugh, and nearly succeeded, a sudden unfamiliar pang passing through him at her words.  It was a feeling not altogether unfamiliar, but one which he had never before felt in regards to a woman.  Instead of attempting a retort, he turned away and busied himself with some task or other in the adjoining room, leaving Espron to watch her.
Lampourde shook his head, trying to work out what could be happening to him.  He had felt almost… well, jealous when she had spoken of Malartic in that way, beyond his surprise in discovering that she did indeed know of him and his passion.  Perhaps he was suffering a touch of indigestion?
            A couple of hours passed, and Lampourde brought her some food.  Rather than untie her and risk her trying to escape, he fed her himself. At first he thought she would refuse to eat, but after staring into his face for a moment, she allowed him to break the plain bread and cheese into small pieces that he fed her with his fingers, and poured the wine into a clay goblet which he put to her lips when she wished to drink.  He was as gentle and polite as he could be under the circumstances, and once more she stared at him with a frankness and courage that piqued his admiration yet further.  “You should let me go,” she said after staring at him for a few seconds.
            He gave a half-hearted sneer.  “Oh?  Because this invincible lover of yours will come and kill me?”
            She shook her head.  “No.  Because I don’t think you’re evil.  I think you’re a good man, and you don’t really want to do this.”
            “Hah!  You’re wrong there!”  This time he couldn’t even muster the most half-hearted leer.  “You don’t know what we might do to you next!”
            She continued to look him in the eye, unwavering.  “You’re not going to violate me.  You’d have done it by now.”
            “Oho!  Is that a fact?”
            “Yes.  You’re not that sort.”
            Lampourde raised an eyebrow, and nodded to the corner where Espron lounged in a chair.  “And what about him?  Do you think he won’t touch you?”
            She looked momentarily uncertain.  “I think he might, if you weren’t here.”  Lampourde found himself suddenly determined to defend her, almost eager to defend her, so that he could prove himself equal to her generous assessment.  It was a strange and not wholly unpleasant feeling, and one that he was not used to.  It unsettled him, and he once again removed himself from her presence, and the discomfort that she brought.
            He passed into the next room, trying to think of other things, going over in his mind the arrangements made with Malartic.  Instead he found her face in his mind’s eye, her blue eyes and courageous expression floating before ghostlike him.  He could hear her voice, but not through any action of his ears, and he fought the urge to rush to her and set her free at once.
            Several hours passed, during which Lampourde tried to stay away from the girl, letting Espron keep an eye on her.  The one problem with jobs like this was the boredom.  Happily he knew that Malartic would arrive shortly, but nonetheless waiting around keeping an eye on the girl was incredibly dull.  Espron had taken out a pair of dice and rolled them idly on the small table, peering at the numbers, tutting and scooping them up to repeat the process over and over.  The rattle of bone on wood swiftly became intolerable, and he could see that Annette was also finding it irritating, although she dared not speak out.  This somehow made it even worse.
            “Stop that!” he snapped.  Espron’s eyes widened in shock, before narrowing in annoyance, and unconsciously his hand dropped to his sword.  Instinctively, Lampourde’s did likewise.  The two glared at each other for a few seconds, their criminal pride as great and as sensitive as any duke or baron.
            Lampourde realised that Annette was watching them, and after a moment, sighed and dropped his hand away from his rapier hilt.  He gave a tight smile, bowing slightly.  “My apologies for my tone monsieur, but please refrain from rolling your dice in that way.”
            Espron returned the bow with a curt nod and a grunt, but he returned the dice to his purse and settled back in his chair.  The next few minutes passed in tense silence, and Lampourde was on the point of retreating from the room once again when the door crashed open to reveal the Chevalier Malartic, dressed in his finest clothing, and with rapier and dagger drawn.  Lampourde breathed a sigh of relief, but was suddenly hit by a cold twist of something in his stomach.  Malartic was here for Annette as agreed, and Lampourde suddenly realised that he had no wish to give her to him.
            However, Malartic was his closest friend, and they had made an agreement.  Desperately forcing down these bizarre and unfamiliar sensations that roiled through him, Lampourde turned to face the sham rescuer.
            “Halt, villains!  Let the lady go and I may let you live!”
            “Hah!  Begone fool, before I get angry!”
            “Your last chance, rascal, release the young lady or pay the price!”
Lampourde turned to Annette.  “I apologise mademoiselle, but I am going to be forced to kill your misguided love.”
            She frowned, but before she could reply, Lampourde turned, drawing sword and poniard in a fluid motion as he leapt at Malartic.  The pale-skinned swordsman was ready for him, deflecting his first lunge with his dagger while his sword flicked at Lampourde’s face.  Lampourde beat this aside with his own dagger, leaping back and slashing low.  They both fell on their guard, circling cautiously.  With his back to Annette, Malartic winked.  Lampourde managed a sickly half-smile in response, a cold weight sitting in his stomach.
            With Annette watching, and Espron quietly withdrawing, so that the victorious Malartic wouldn’t have to ‘deal’ with him as well, the two finest swordsmen in Paris got to work.  Swords and daggers flashed back and forth, setting a rapid staccato rhythm.  Malartic’s first attack was parried, he deflected the riposte, counter-attacked in his turn, his blade darting high, low, high again.  Each time Lampourde’s blade was there to flick aside his attacks and he lunged forwards, his rapier gliding out.  Had Malartic not hurled himself backwards, Lampourde’s point would have been protruding several inches out from his back.
            The battle was fast and vicious, and not even the most observant watcher could have been able to tell that it wasn’t in the most deadly earnest.  In actual fact, it was barely a pretence at all, each relying on the superlative skill of the other to ward off attacks that were delivered with almost all of the speed and skill they could muster.
            Minutes passed, the two moving back and forth across the floor, traversing, dodging, lunging.  It was Lampourde’s usual habit to provide a running commentary during a fight, not through any wish to distract his opponent, but because he took such pleasure and professional interest in the art of swordsmanship and loved to observe and discuss his opponent’s technique.  This time though he fought in silence, his face grave and his eyes locked upon the gleaming blade of his friend.
            Malartic was beginning to tire, and he signalled to Lampourde to bring the fight to its pre-arranged conclusion, but Lampourde appeared not to notice, attacking with as much speed and ferocity as before.  Malartic was forced back, parrying rapidly.  Swearing under his breath, he signalled again but still Lampourde seemed oblivious.
            The tall swordsman lunged, binding Malartic’s rapier with his dagger.  Malartic’s own dagger swept aside Lampourde’s sword but the ashy-faced criminal had nowhere left to retreat to and his back slammed into the wooden wall, where he found himself pinned, dagger locked to sword, and sword to dagger, his face inches from Lampourde’s.
            “That’s enough!” he hissed.  “We’ve done enough, now let me win for goodness sake!”
            “I… I can’t.”  Lampourde’s face was a picture of misery and conflict.
“I can’t give her up.”
  “Why not?”
            “Malartic my friend, I’m so sorry, I don’t know how this has happened!”
            “What?  How what’s happened?”
            “I… I’ve fallen in love with her too.”
            Malartic stared at him for a moment, then his eyes widened.  “Traitor!” he snarled.  “Betrayer! “  With a strength born of fury, he thrust forwards with both arms, heaving Lampourde back, leaping after him with a yell of rage.
            If their fighting before had been a display of highly skilled fencing, the art of swordsmanship now attained a zenith never seen before or since.  The blades of the two men were flickering blurs, daggers flashing out to deflect, bind and parry.  They barely moved their feet; no more advance, retreat and traverse, the two only shifting to lunge and recover.  Malartic’s pale face was a corpse-like white, drawn into in a furious snarl, while Lampourde’s was set in a frown of concentration, the gleam of the blades reflected in his eyes.
            A minute passed as their blades flew like lightning and it seemed impossible that neither of them had been touched, then Malartic gasped as Lampourde’s blade pierced his arm.  In that split second, Lampourde could have put his point through the smaller man’s throat, but he hesitated, his expression appalled as he realised he’d wounded his friend.  Malartic however just snarled and slashed low, opening a deep cut across Lampourde’s thigh in his moment of indecision.
            He staggered back, blood soaking into the cloth of his breeches as his mind registered what had happened.  He blinked in astonishment as the sting of his wound reached his brain.  His eyes widened, and with a bellow of rage, he hurled himself forwards.  Malartic yelled and rushed to meet him.  No longer were they fencing, barely could their fight be called swordsmanship as they stabbed, hacked and gouged at each other in berserk fury.
            Lampourde’s dagger opened a cut across Malartic’s chest, while his friend drove his sword guard into Lampourde’s face.  Lampourde once again tried to bring his dagger in, only to find it ripped from his hand. Malartic grinned in triumph, lunging in but suddenly found Lampourde’s left hand closing with an iron grip over his wrist.  The larger man turned on the ball of his foot and hurled Malartic over his shoulder, throwing him fully six feet through the air to crash to the floor.
            He hurled himself after the fallen man, but Malartic rolled, bringing his sword up, and Lampourde had to twist desperately to the side to avoid impaling himself.  Instead, Malartic’s point raked his ribs, more blood oozing out to soak into his clothes.  He kicked out, catching Malartic’s sword-hand with his boot and sending his friend’s rapier clattering across the floor.
            The smaller man rapidly switched his dagger to his right hand, then Lampourde was throwing himself forwards again, point aimed unerringly at his heart.  Malartic almost managed to parry the longer blade, knocking it away from his chest.  Instead the point slammed into the meat of his left shoulder and he yelled in pain as Lampourde’s momentum sent him slamming into his comrade and they both crashed to the floor.
            They writhed, hilt locked to hilt.  Lampourde was larger and stronger and rolled on top, pinning his comrade to the floor, but Malartic writhed like an eel, using his left hand to punch at his friend’s face, his throat, his stomach.  Lampourde bore these blows stoically, slowly forcing down Malartic’s right hand, while struggling to get his left around Malartic’s throat.  Despite Malartic’s increasingly frantic and savage blows, Lampourde’s fingers closed around the smaller man’s windpipe and started to squeeze.
            Malartic’s eyes bulged and his face started to turn very slightly pink.  He let out a gurgle, struggling against Lampourde’s iron grip.  He was unable to break free, but thrashing around, his vision starting to cloud, he finally got enough room to bring his knee up as hard as his failing strength allowed, right between Lampourde’s legs.  Lampourde stiffened.   Then, letting out a soft sigh he released his hold on Malartic’s throat and gently toppled sideways, slowly curling into a ball.
            The silence was broken only by Malartic’s desperate gasps and coughs and the slightly laboured breathing of Lampourde.   The two lay motionless on the floor, side by side.  Suddenly, footsteps could be heard on the stairs down into the cellar, and they both looked up to see a handsome young man enter, modestly dressed and armed with sword and pistol.
            Annette looked up and saw him, and her expression was one of joy.  “Raoul!”
            “Annette, my darling!”  He rushed over to her, keeping a cautious eye on the two men lying prostrate on the floor.  They stared back at him, Malartic still gasping for breath, while Lampourde watched through a haze of pain and the growing swelling around his eyes where Malartic had repeatedly struck him, neither able to move.
            The young man quickly untied her and she threw herself into his arms.  “Oh my love, I knew you’d find me!”
            “Of course!  I’d have gone into hell itself to get you back!  Now quickly, while these villains are incapacitated.”
            “But that one isn’t a villain, he tried to save me!”  She turned to Malartic.  “Monsieur,” she said, “I don’t know who you are, though you seem vaguely familiar, but I can only thank you for your gallantry in attempting to rescue me.”  Malartic stared up at her, unable to speak as his chest heaved for breath.  “My father is a tailor on the Rue de Berrualt, and I’d be glad to thank you properly if you visit me there.”  With that, the two young lovers turned and fled together out of the cellar and out onto the street.  All that the two exhausted criminals could do was watch them go.
            Silence once more descended, and Malartic’s breathing gradually became less laboured.  Lampourde slowly uncurled as the pain decreased, and the two swordsmen turned to look at each other.  Their clothes were torn and blood-stained, Lampourde’s face was a mass of swelling while Malartic’s left arm hung virtually useless and his throat was purple with bruising.  For some time they stared at each other without speaking.
            “I think,” Malartic said eventually, his voice a hoarse whisper, “that I need a drink.”  Lampourde nodded, and slowly, painfully began to rise to his feet. 
            “My friend,” he said, his voice  tight, “I-“  Malartic raised a hand and cut him off.
            “Lampourde, say nothing.”  He stood laboriously.  “There is nothing to apologise for.  In fact, I think that we should never speak of this ever again.”
            Lampourde nodded, relieved.  “Agreed.”
            Malartic paused.  “Oh, yes.  There is one thing though.”
            “Which is?”
            “I want my money back.”  There was a brief pause, then Lampourde passed Malartic’s purse to him without a word.
Then, very slowly and very stiffly, one of them walking with a limp and a pronounced stoop, the two started back towards the Crowned Radish.


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