Edward Marston

Drums of War

Chapter One

France, 1705

Daniel Rawson saw him coming. From his vantage point high up in the tree, he could command a view that stretched for almost a mile. With the aid of his telescope, he was even able to identify the man's regiment. The rider had a blue knee-length coat with red cuffs. He wore a cravat, a tricorne hat and black leather boots that glistened in the sun. The weapon holstered beside him was a rifled carbine. Daniel knew that he must therefore belong to the Royal-Carabinier corps. The horse was keeping up a steady canter, its hooves sending up clouds of dust from the dry track. At that pace, it would reach Daniel within a matter of minutes. It was time for him to climb down to a lower branch.

Though he was a captain in the 24 ^th Foot, a seasoned British regiment engaged in fighting Louis XIV's mighty army, he was not in uniform now. Indeed, he would have been unrecognisable to most of his fellow-soldiers. Dressed in the nondescript garb of a French peasant, he'd grown a beard, dirtied his face and found a cap that hung low across his forehead. Since he was fluent in French and had the broad shoulders of someone accustomed to hard labour, he was confident that nobody would see through his disguise. What set him apart from other churls was that he had money in his purse and weapons under his smock. He also had a pretty accomplice.

When the rider got closer, Daniel gave the signal and Marie nodded in reply. Picking up her basket, she came out of her hiding place in the copse, walked across to the track and began to saunter along it. She was young, fresh-faced and buxom. Her long brown hair trailed down her back from beneath her bonnet. As her hips swayed rhythmically, her skirt swished to and fro. Hearing the clack of hooves behind her, Marie stopped and turned. The rider came round the angle of the trees and she had her first sight of him. He was tall in the saddle and, from what she could tell, passably handsome. The closer he got, the broader became her smile. He, in turn, was appraising her carefully and he liked what he saw. He took her for a farmer's daughter on her way to market in the next village. She stood obligingly aside as if to let him go past but — urgent as his business was — he felt that he could tarry for a short while. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

He slowed his horse to a trot and gave her a friendly greeting. Marie giggled in reply and flashed her eyes. It was all the invitation he needed. Tugging the animal to a halt, he dismounted, removed his hat and enjoyed a long, luscious kiss. Her lips were sweet and warm. He looked around to make sure that they were alone. The place seemed utterly deserted. Marie led him to the shelter of the trees. After tethering his mount, he discarded his hat, removed his sash then took off his coat. Tumbling a country wench on a bed of green grass was just the fillip he needed after several hours' ride on a hot day. She was clearly willing and far too wholesome to be a whore. He would not even have to pay for her favours. Setting her basket aside, she put her hands on her hips. When she giggled again, her breasts trembled irresistibly.

Daniel waited until the trooper lowered his breeches. It was the moment when his quarry was completely off guard and at his most vulnerable. Eyes fixed on the girl and loins already on fire, the man did not hear the branch creak or the leaves rustle above his head. Daniel timed his jump perfectly, hitting his target with such force that he knocked all the breath out of him, and using the butt of his pistol to club the man into unconsciousness. Letting out a gasp of fear, Marie turned away, horrified at the sudden violence. There had been no mention of murder when she agreed to help Daniel. He had told her that it was merely a jest played on an old friend yet he had just struck the so-called friend on the head. She could not bear to watch and was frightened that she might also be in danger.

Working swiftly, Daniel stripped the man of his remaining clothes then tied him securely to a tree with some rope he'd concealed nearby. When Marie dared to look again, she saw that the trooper she'd enticed from his horse was now bound and gagged, seated upright against a trunk with his head slumped forward on to his chest. What really caught her eye and banished her anxiety at once, however, was the fact that Daniel was naked from the waist up, clearly intending to put on the man's shirt and coat. She studied his slim, smooth, lightly tanned, muscular body with gathering interest. He was so different from the potbellied oafs she served at her father's inn. Though it bore the scars of war, his physique was truly impressive, hardened by combat and combining a sculptured beauty with latent power. Marie was roused and entranced. She forgot all about the victim of the assault. Her mind was on something else now. As Daniel reached for the shirt, she raised a hand.

'Wait!' she cried.

'Don't worry,' he said, taking some coins from his purse. 'I always honour a debt. You did well, Marie. Here's your reward.'

'I care nothing for the money, good sir.'

'But you earned it.'

'Begging your pardon, sir, I'd rather take my wages another way.'

'Then you shall have my horse — I need to ride his.'

'That's not what I meant, sir.'


'I want neither payment nor the horse,' she said, stepping a little closer.

'Then what can I give you?' Even as he asked the question, he guessed the answer. Daniel grinned happily. 'Ah, I understand now.'

He had chosen the ideal accomplice. When he had spent the night at a nearby inn, Daniel sensed that Marie would be able to help him. She was comely and eager. He had told her a plausible tale about playing a trick on a friend in the army. Dressing up as a peasant, he'd explained, was all part of the jest. All that he'd hired her to do was to cause a distraction and she'd done that with surprising skill, unaware that she was actually assisting the enemy in the theft of royal dispatches. The giggle that had bewitched the trooper was now directed solely at Daniel and it was very tempting. As it grew louder, her whole body shook with sheer delight. Marie spread her arms wide to claim her reward, at once offering herself and pleading to be taken. Daniel needed only a second to reach his decision. Having got what he wanted, he could afford a little distraction.

'Let's find somewhere more private,' he said, glancing at his captive. 'We don't want to make him jealous, do we?' 'Confound it!' exclaimed the Duke of Marlborough, pacing up and down. 'Can there be anything worse than leading a coalition army? I'm fighting with one arm tied behind my back and both feet lashed together. Bickering and delay will be the ruination of me. I'm not allowed to move one solitary inch without a council of war beforehand.'

'The Dutch are awkward bedfellows, Your Grace,' agreed Cardonnel.

'They're the bane of my life, Adam. But for their caution, we could have won a decisive action on the Moselle and occupied French soil. We could have been giving nightmares to King Louis. Instead of that, we're back where we started.'

'The blame cannot be laid entirely on the Dutch.'

'No,' said Marlborough, heaving a sigh. 'We also have to contend with the problem of the Margrave of Baden. I ride all the way to see him in order to apprise him of my plans and what does he tell me? Not only is he unable to supply me with wagons, guns and horses but his wounded foot makes it impossible for him and his men to undertake the siege of Saarlouis. Yet another project has to be abandoned.'

'It's very frustrating, Your Grace.'

'It's positively infuriating!'

Marlborough and Adam Cardonnel were alone in the tent that acted as their headquarters. It was only because he could trust his secretary that Marlborough was able to vent his anger so openly. Most of the time, he had to conceal it behind soft words and a polite smile. As commander-in-chief of the Confederate army, he was hampered at every turn by his supposed allies. His triumph at the battle of Blenheim the previous year had sent tremors through France and been marked by wild celebrations in England, Austria, Germany and Savoy. Even the Dutch hailed

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