Friday, December 16, 2016

Vol 7 - Tales of Vengeance | Bk I: Winter of the Wolf, Chapters 1 + 2

Volume 7 - Tales of Vengeance

Book I: Winter of the Wolf

Chapter 1: The First Bite of Winter

The biting wind and blowing snow made it difficult for the party to see each other, much less to stay together. Mel and his cart kept lagging behind. After a day on the road, the cart horse was barely able to maintain a shuffling walk and this delayed Norbert and Jacques who rode rear guard. Gaston and Father Signoret rode point with six of his Eminence’s Red Guards between them and Mel’s cart. The big black Gaston rode seemed nearly unaffected by the weather and the sturdy white horse that Signoret had selected from the Vicomte de Bouvard’s stables continued to hold true to the promise of the hardy Camargue stock from which it derived. 

Off to the side of the road, the Jesuit noticed a group of figures huddled together in the snow. Startled, he drew his pistol and checked his horse. Reining the white in, he moved closer. The three figures were unmoving and the snow that covered their peaceful faces lay white and pristine. Signoret dismounted and checked them. They looked to be peasants, perhaps a family traveling together: an old man, a younger woman, and a child. The child lay with its head cradled in the woman’s lap. Not a sign of breath came from any of the three. They were dead, frozen by the cold. Just visible beneath the child’s cloak, was a crude wooden necklace with a carved flower pendant. “What should we do?” Gaston asked.

“We must bury them and I will say a Mass and pray for them.”

Gaston instructed his men to take the shovel and axe from the cart and set the servants to digging graves for the peasants. At the back of the party, the cart horse had stopped, it’s legs trembling in the cold. Mel hit the nag lightly with a stick, but the horse refused to take another step forward. Mel struck the beast more forcefully, “Move, damn you! Move!” The horse took a single shuffling step forward. Then it slowly sank to the road. Mel began hitting it again and again, but the beast did not move. Norbert and Jacques came forward. 

 “No use beating a dead horse,” Jacques said. But Mel continued to berate and beat the animal.

Hearing the commotion, Signoret walked back and commanded Mel to stop. When Mel did not, the Jesuit placed his hand on his sword hilt and repeated his command saying that if Mel did not stop, he would make him stop. Norbert ordered his man to stop while Signoret and Jacques examined the nag. The nag was swaybacked with a distended stomach and protruding ribs. It was also quite dead.

Jacques said, “What idiot brought an old, sick horse on this journey?”

“It was the best I could st…find,” said Mel. Besides I’m just a servant, what do I know about horses?”

“Apparently nothing,” Signoret said.

Nobert suggested that they leave the cart behind and divide the food among the riders, but Signoret said they would replace the nag with Claude’s mule and that Claude would ride the cart with Mel. With that agreed, the two servants went to work.

After the digging was finished, Claude spent a few minutes fashioning crosses for the dead by tying two sticks together. Then Father Signoret said a Mass and prayed for the souls of the unknown dead. When that was done, Gaston gave the order to mount. As they rode away, the icy wind rattled the wooden necklace against the cross over the child’s grave.

The group stopped at the next village to commandeer a draft horse to replace Mel’s dead nag. Signoret told Claude to give the farmer his mule in partial compensation for the draft horse. They continued on stopping at night at a roadside inn. The next day was bitterly cold. While the snow had stopped, the biting wind blew yesterday’s snow sideways forming drifts along the road which sometimes barred their path. The riders used their horses to force their way through the drifts which exhausted both man and beast. That afternoon the party came across a coach headed towards them with a single outrider as guard. The outrider called on the party to make way. Signoret quickly moved his horse aside, but Gaston turned his huge black sideways barring the road while he drew and leveled a pistol at the outrider. “Halt and declare yourselves!”

Frightened the rider hauled on his reins; behind him the coached rocked as the driver braked to a sudden halt. The man seated next to the  driverleveled a blunderbuss in Gaston’s direction. As he did, Signoret and several Red Guards drew their pistols and leveled them at the man. From inside a querulous voice asked a question which the guard seemed to repeat. “Who are you and by what right do you bar our Lady’s path.”

“I am Captain Gaston Thibeault of the Cardinal’s Red Guards and we are on our way to Soissons on a mission for his Eminence. Now drop your weapon or we will drop you where you stand!” The guard quickly complied.

“Our mistress, the Baroness de Boucy is on her way to Paris. We are her servants.”

Again the querulous voice spoke from behind the coach’s leather curtains. This time the voice was louder and the words could be understood. “Pierre, why are we stopped?”

Gaston holstered his pistol as he rode closer to the carriage. He spoke briefly with the Baroness learning that she was traveling to Paris from her home at Bucy et Long, a village east of Soissons. The Baroness told them of the depredations of vicious wolves in the countryside and that she was on her way to safety in Paris. Her party had been harried by wolves on their journey, losing one of the coach horses—which they replaced with the horse of one of her two guards who now sat next to the driver. The Baroness demanded that Captain Thibeault escort her to safety in Paris, but Gaston curtly refused, saying, “My Lady, we are on our way to Soissons to deal with these wolves. Our orders from his Eminence will brook no delay. I must refuse your request.” The Baroness continued to protest, but Gaston ordered his party to ride on.

The next day the wind shifted so that it blew directly in their faces. The chill air found a way to their skin despite their layers of clothing and most of their horses were exhausted from fighting the cold and snow. Father Signoret warned Gaston that the horses might not be able to go much farther. Jacques said, “Captain, we must find shelter for the horses or we will lose half our mounts.”

Gaston said, “The last village was two hours behind us. I will go ahead to find shelter. Father will you accompany me?” Signoret nodded assent. “Jacques, you and the men find what shelter you can and see to the horses. We’ll be back as soon as we find somewhere to shelter.” Gaston went in front, providing some respite to Signoret and his mount. After a time the wind died and shortly after Gaston signaled Signoret to stop. Quietly he said, “I smell a lit match. This feels like an ambush.” 

Signoret said, “I’ll dismount and scout ahead and surprise them. But come quickly if I call.”

“I’ll keep their attention here until you need me.” Gaston took the reins of Signoret’s white then kicked the huge black into a high stepping motion as he circled up and down along the road.

Signoret’s years spent hunting allowed him to move quietly through the brush until he could see the match holders: two men hiding behind a low hedge with muskets pointed towards the road. A third man complained to the others asking what was taking their quarry so long. Signoret surprised them calling on them to surrender. Instead of immediately throwing down their weapons, the three would-be-bandits argued amongst themselves until a fourth bandit crashed through the brush calling out a warning. Signoret fired, dropping fourth man whothe arrival. Who he noticed was a young man. Two of the men dropped their muskets, while the third man ran towards the fallen youth as he said, “Timmy! Oh, my poor boy. You’ve killed him.”

Signoret quickly gestured with his second pistol for the older bandit to back away just as Gaston leapt his huge black over the hedge and into the clearing. The bandits threw themselves to the ground and begged for mercy. Questioning them the pair learned that the bandits were poor liars, that they were not very clever since despite their claim that they were local farmers they didn’t have a farm nearby and didn’t even know the location of any nearby farms. They did know where the next village was having killed a man there when he “backed into my knife.” In the woods nearby, the Jesuit found a skinny mule tied to a tree. With the body of Timmy thrown over the mule, they led the bandits back to their party. As the Red Guards led their exhausted mounts, the would-be bandits were put to work pulling the cart.

At the next village they learn that the bandits had murdered one of the villagers who all wanted to hang the bandits. Gaston asked if they had a magistrate or other official, but the village was too small for an official presence. Gaston would not allow the prisoners to be hung saying, “You must wait until a magistrate comes here so that there can be a trial where they will be found guilty and then hung.” Gaston quartered the party in the village and rested the horses for several days. The villagers were not too upset at the imposition since Gaston had the Red Guards pay for their quarters. In return the villagers told the group stories of depredations of wolves both recent and in the time of their grandparents. Each night, as the moon rose, the sound of wolf howls accompanied the villagers’ stories.

After the horses had recovered enough to continue, the party left the village. The bandits remained behind in the custody of the villagers along with two letters written by Gaston and Father Signoret for the magistrate attesting to the guilt of the three surviving bandits. That night, the party was unable to reach an inn or to find a village. They created lean-tos with their tents and Jacques and Signoret securely picketed the horses on the windward side to provide additional protection from the cold. Gaston set watches in pairs. On Norbert’s watch, the giant huddled close to the fire in a vain attempt to stay warn. Midway through his watch, the horses became restless and he noticed a pair of wolves slinking towards the picket line. Norbert fired his matchlock missing the wolf. One of the wolves was frightened by the shot and ran for the darkness. The other wolf leapt on Norbert he struggled with the wolf grappling with it and stabbing it with his knife. The wolf howled in pain and limped off into the darkness. The rest of the party awoke and fired a number of shots into the darkness at the wolves. They could not tell if their shots had any effect. But shortly afterwards, they heard an eerie wolf call and the wolves departed. Gaston doubled the watch and no more attacks occurred. Despite the absence of attacks, the wolves continued to howl and the party got very little sleep that night. 
  Soissons as viewed from the North (1634)

The next afternoon they crested a ridge. Below them to the north, they saw the town of Soissons and its surrounding farm land spread out like a quilt in the center of the bowl-shaped Aisne River valley. Before them the road wound back and forth down the ridge. Once they had made their way halfway to the valley, the sun turned red as it began to set behind the hills and from the ridge above them they heard the howl of a wolf which was soon echoed by howling from all around them. They rode towards Soissons as quickly as their tired horses would allow. Soon, they heard the same eerie howling that had called the pack away the night before and behind them they could see the dark racing figures of at least a dozen wolves.

“Most of the horses are exhausted. They won’t be able to outrun the wolves,” Jacques said. 

“Then we will make a stand. There!” Gaston pointed to a level spot ahead where the road widened slightly. 

“My horse still has strength in her. I’ll ride to the town for help,” Signoret offered.

“Go and Godspeed Father,” Gaston said. “Form circle!...Steady men. Make each shot count. Don’t shoot until you can see their tails as well as their eyes.”

The wolves raced forward gradually slowing and spreading out as they saw that their prey had ceased running. The wolves were huge and they swarmed forward in a black and gray wave. Pistol shots cracked dropping five or six of the big beasts. Claude, seeing his master receding in the distance and the wolves heading towards him, leapt onto the back of Jacques horse. This startled Jacques and his horse and the horse leapt forward racing down the road towards Soissons. Jacques decided that, since he was already heading that way, he would catch up to the Jesuit and return his servant to him.

Jacques’ abrupt departure left a gap in the circle and the surviving wolves flowed in. Gaston pistoled one wolf after another then dropping his pistol and drew his sword. One wolf grabbed Norbert’s giant Percheron by the throat dragging it to the ground. Norbert swung at the wolf and his broadsword nearly severed the beast’s leg. It whined in agony as it limped away. From the ridge top the eerie howling sounded again and another wave of wolves raced forward. Another volley of point blank fire met the wolves killing and wounding many but the circle had still not reformed and wolves were all about. One wolf ripped the throat out of a Red Guard’s mount. Bellamy, the Red Guard, fell pinned under his horse. The wolf then leapt on the rider. In vain, Gaston threw his blade at the wolf, but it leapt aside and tore out Bellamy’s throat. More pistols crashed sending the surviving wolves into retreat. 

Meanwhile, Signoret with Jacques and Claude trailing him, headed for Soissons. Behind them ran two large wolves. One leapt at Jacques horse and Claude was tossed off into a snow drift. Seeing his servant was in danger. Signoret quickly dismounted and led his horse into a nearby thicket of thorn bushes. He picketed the white then drew his pistols and ran back up the road towards Claude. Jacques circled back towards Claude reaching down to pull the servant up behind him. He fired at one of the wolves, wounding it, and then raced towards Signoret. The second wolf leapt for his horse’s hindquarters, but a shot from Signoret struck the wolf between the eyes hurling it backwards. The Jesuit regained his horse and the three hurried towards Soissons. The first building they reached was the Abbey of Saint Jean des Vignes. The porter responded to their frantic pounding and told them the Abbey was closed for the night. But at Father Signoret’s request he agreed to let them in. But Signoret wanted help, not sanctuary. But no help was to be had from the peaceful Augustinian monks. Instead the two headed towards the nearest city gate. 

They reached the gate and Jacques demanded entry in the name of the King and the Cardinal. Intimidated by the Red Guard, the militia allowed them entrance and they quickly headed towards the Town Guards’ barracks. There they found the commander, Lieutenant Phillipe Trudeau. They persuaded Lieutenant Trudeau to help them and he quickly mustered the guard. He commandeered some horses to mount his infantry and some torches to light their way. Accompanied by the lieutenant and a dozen of the town guards, Signoret and Jacques led the way back to their friends. 

Gaston had finally reformed the circle. He detailed half his men to load their muskets while the rest reloaded their pistols. Their preparations were just in time as the eerie howling was soon followed by another wave of attackers. But the greater range of the muskets allowed the Red Guards to drop the wolves before they could reach the circle and the remaining wolves were no match for pointblank pistol volleys. The wolves could make no headway against the disciplined Red Guards. Once again the eerie howling called the wolf packs to retreat and soon after the reinforcements arrived.[i]

It was early on the night of Thursday, February 1, 1624 when the combined party entered the city of Soissons. Once inside Father Signoret treated the wounded. Mel was bitten and scratched and of the Red Guards, Bellamy was dead, his throat torn out by a wolf. Francis, another Red Guard, had a bad bite on his leg. Meanwhile Jacques looked to the horses, most of whom had bites and scratches from the wolves. While the injured were being treated, Gaston cut the heads off of the 10 wolves that had been killed and stuck the heads on stakes outside the city gate as a sign to all that the Red Guards were here in Soissons to eliminate the threat of the wolves forever.

In the hills outside Soissons, the wolves continued to howl.

Chapter 2: Soissons

That night, Father Signoret stayed with Brother Christian, who told him that the wolf attacks had begun in late November in the countryside around Soissons. The first wolf attacks were against herd animals with many cows and sheep slaughtered. On December 6 one of the Cathedral Canons was attacked and killed as he was returning to the rectory outside the church. This occurred within the town itself. That same night, Bishop Hecqueville passed away in his bed after a lengthy illness. When the Bishop’s body was discovered the next morning; the windows of his room were open, the glass broken, and the frames shattered from the outside and claw marks were seen on the windowsill.

Although the wolf attacks outside Soissons increased in frequency and in ferocity to the point that no one felt safe to travel at night except in well-armed groups, no more attacks occurred inside Soisson until January. On January 4th a member of the Soissons town council was attacked and killed in his bed. Then on January 5th, furious sounds of pounding and clawing were heard outside the gate of the Governor’s Chateau. The guards fired their muskets at the sound and tossed lit torches down before the gate. The sounds stopped. However later that night, inside the town, a woman and her child were attacked and killed. The next morning, huge claw marks were found on the gate of the chateau. Then on January 6th one of Governor’s guards was killed outside of a Soissons tavern. Since then the wolves have been seen in greater and greater numbers. Now everyone is afraid to travel after dark and most people are afraid to go outside at all.

After thinking over the information he received from Brother Crispin, Signoret is left with one question. How are the wolves getting into the town and then getting back out again?

While Gaston arranged accommodations for the Red Guards with Monsieur Petain, the owner of the Two Saints Tavern, Norbert and Jacques went into the common room and arranged for some dinner. They took a plate of cheese and pickles and some wine over to the fireplace to warm themselves while their dinner was prepared. By the fireplace sat a one-legged man dressed in worn clothing. His gray hair and lined face gave him a look of age. By his side, he had a pair of crude crutches. 

He told the pair that he was an old soldier wounded fighting with the Winter King against the cursed Spaniards in the wars in Bohemia. He told them his name was Naudin. Norbert and Jacques introduced themselves and Naudin said that he had known a soldier named Thibault and that they had fought together at the Battle of White Mountain, where Naudin had taken a musket ball that cost him his leg. Norbert said that Gaston Thibeault was his cousin and called Naudin “grandfather” which angered the man. He turned his back to Norbert, who then bullied Naudin into telling  him his Christian name, Timothée, while continuing to call him grandfather. Naudin rose to his feet and shook his crutch in anger. Norbert took the crutch away from Old Naudin and began juggling the crutch in the air as the crippled old soldier fell to the floor with a cry of pain. Finally Norbert allowed Old Naudin to regain his crutch and the old soldier hobbled out alone into the cold.

The next day Signoret and Gaston went outside Soissons to examine the walls and to look for tracks. In the daylight, the shape of the town was readily apparent. The town lay in a bowl-shaped area of the Aisne River valley with the rim of the bowl formed by the surrounding hills. The gothic steeple of the Cathedral of Saint Gervais clearly marked the center of the town. Despite traversing the complete circuit of the walls, they did not find any fresh wolf tracks near the town. It was readily apparent that that walls and moat of Soissons were too steep and broad for wolves to climb or to leap past. How the wolves were able to enter and exit the town remained a mystery. “Perhaps,” Signoret suggested, “the wolves are using some sort of tunnel to enter the town.” 

Gaston suggested that if there was a secret tunnel, the town Governor should know about it. “We should present ourselves in any event.” The Governor’s Chateau was located just outside the town to the northwest. It was an old style medieval castle, rectangular in shape with tall towers at the four corners and in the middle of the two long sides in a design that was long out of date. Like the town, the castle was moated and it had a triangular moat house with an additional tower that guarded the main gate. 

As they arrived, they saw that although the gates were open, the iron portcullis was down and a half squad of guards armed with halberds were on duty. The pair tried to gain admittance to the castle, but the guards refuse them entrance despite Gaston’s uniform and his attempts at intimidation. Questioning the guards, Signoret learned that the Governor didn’t even employ a chaplain at his chateau. This may bear further inquiry, the Jesuit thought.

Norbert, accompanied by Jacques and Mel, went to the market to see if he could find the lovely Yvette. The market was an open air construction consisting of wooden pillars and a wood roof with spaces beneath for booths and tables. Merchants and farmers came from all around to sell their wares. As it was still winter, the produce consisted mostly of root vegetables with a few wrinkled apples. Norbert spotted Yvette. Standing next to her in conversation was Old Naudin who had made it clear that morning that he didn’t like Norbert nor did he trust his intentions towards the innocent and kindly Yvette. The old soldier moved to place himself between Norbert and Yvette telling the girl, “It’s him! Run child! I’ll stay and delay that giant somehow.”

Mel asked, “Want me to take care of the old gaffer boss?” as he quickly drew his thumb across his throat in a meaningful gesture.

“No Mel. I can handle this.” Norbert quickly walked around Naudin holding his arms out to Yvette. 

She came forward and took his hands saying, “You came. You really came.”

“I got your letter. It sounded like you needed help. And I’m not alone. I’m in Cardinal Richelieu’s Red Guards now and a bunch of them are with me. We’ll soon see to those wolves!”

Jacques leaned against a pillar as he watched the scene unfold. He noticed that despite the snow and cold, the Town Governor’s guards were out collecting taxes with threats or violence, if necessary. While two guards harassed a vendor, two other guards approached Naudin and told him that begging was not allowed in town. He explained that he was not a beggar, that he was here to visit a friend. In response, one guard kicked Naudin’s crutch away causing him a painful fall. In response Yvette’s little dog, Ti-Tob growled and barked at the guards. The second guard took a threatening step towards the dog and Norbert also stepped forward.

“Best mind your own business stranger. You may be big, but four two one odds will quickly cut you down to size,” the guard warned.

Jacques said in a lazy drawl, “Hey there, that’s my large friend you are threatening so the odds aren’t four to one.”  Jacques stood and drew his rapier moving fluidly into an en garde stance. “It’s two against four and we are two of Cardinal Richelieu’s elite Red Guards.”

The guards looked at Jacques and Norbert and quickly decided there were things they needed to attend to somewhere else. As they left, Norbert returned the crutch to Old Naudin, who mumbled something in acknowledgement.

Norbert led Yvette a few steps away telling her that he wanted to see her…alone. She said that she couldn’t leave the booth unattended. Due to the food shortages, someone might steal her produce. Then Yvette asked Norbert to “promise to be kind to Old Naudin. He has suffered so much.” Norbert agreed and suggested that he could return to walk her home to the farm where she lived. Yvette said that he should come at least an hour before sunset so there would be time for him to return to town in the daylight after walking her home. Norbert agreed.

That afternoon, Gaston, Jacques, Norbert, Mel, Signoret, and the Jesuit’s trusty servant Claude went to the scene of last night’s battle with the wolves. Since several of the horses were still injured and needed rest, they decided to travel on foot. At the site of the battle, they found a blood trail which they followed towards the hills. From the tracks Signoret was able to confirm that they were following perhaps a dozen wounded wolves and at least that many more that were uninjured. The afternoon waned without them reaching the wolves’ lair. As they approached the surrounding hills, they heard the call of several wolves and they saw a single wolf on a nearby hilltop. They decided to return to Soissons. On their way back to town they were attacked by half a dozen wolves. They made a stand with their backs to a hedge. The wolves were spread out making difficult targets and the group’s fire was not very effective.[ii] Signoret wounded two wolves, one with his pistol and another with his blade. Gaston broke the shoulder of one wolf with a musket ball at close range. Dropping his musket he drew his rapier and killed another with a lunge through the heart. Whether it was Jacques rapid fire or his wolve’s bane that kept the wolves away from him was unclear, but with more than half the wolves dead or wounded, the survivors loped away in retreat. Gaston calmly finished off the wolf with the broken shoulder with a pistol shot from a distance. Then Gaston borrowed Norbert’s broadsword to hack the heads from the two dead wolves. As the group reached the gate of Soissons, Gaston stood in the entry, feet planted as he raised the two new wolf head trophies. In the distance, as if in answer to Gaston’s silent challenge they heard the eerie howling of the great wolf.

[i] The first two waves were a dozen wolves each. Of those, 10 wolves were killed (Gaston killed 5) and 14 were wounded.
[ii] Gaston killed 2 wolves and 2 more were wounded by Signoret.

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