Edward Marston

Fire and Sword


Flanders, 1707

Daniel Rawson rode at a steady canter along a winding track. It was late afternoon and autumn was already chasing some of the light from the sky. He was resigned to the fact that he wouldn’t reach the camp until well after midnight. Daniel was a captain in the 24^th Foot and his regiment had gone into winter quarters. But he was not in uniform now. Instead, he was dressed in the civilian clothing that allowed him to slip through enemy lines so that he could act as a spy in Paris. The forged papers he was carrying bore the name of Marcel Daron, a wine merchant, a pose that was reinforced by his ability to speak French like a native and by his knowledge of certain vineyards in the country.

As on previous occasions, the disguise had served him well. During his stay in the French capital, he’d garnered some crucial intelligence. Most of it had been committed to memory so that he was not caught with sensitive documents in his possession. However, a couple of dispatches he’d managed to intercept were concealed in the lining of his coat. He smiled as he recalled how he’d got hold of them. The messenger had been left with a bad headache and had faced the ordeal of making an embarrassing confession to superiors in the French army. Severe punishment must have followed. Daniel had no sympathy for him. The messenger had been careless.

He was still musing on his encounter with the man when a noise brought him out of his reverie. A French patrol had suddenly appeared on the crest of the hill to his left. A dozen or so in all, they paused for a moment then kicked their horses into a gallop and came surging down the incline with predatory zeal. When he saw one of them draw a pistol, Daniel didn’t hesitate. He knew that Marcel Daron wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of an awkward situation this time. The soldiers were likely to kill him first and identify him afterwards. Digging in his heels and urging his mount on, Daniel fled, riding hell for leather and sending up small clouds of dust in his wake. The blue uniforms kept up hot pursuit. They were clearly gaining on him. His assignment was in danger of ending abruptly. The thunder of hooves behind him could be the sound of his death knell.

There was no chance of outrunning them. Daniel accepted that. Their horses had been chosen for speed and stamina. His, by contrast, was the kind of serviceable but willing animal that a wine merchant might be expected to own. It was only a question of minutes before he was overhauled. Since there was no hope of winning a race, Daniel’s sole means of escape was to elude them somehow. The wood ahead of him offered that vague possibility. Coaxing the last ounce of speed from his horse, he pounded towards it then veered off to the right, heading for the point where the trees and undergrowth seemed at their most dense. He was just in time. The moment he changed direction, a bullet from the pistol whistled harmlessly past him. Had he stayed on the track, it would have hit him squarely between the shoulder blades.

Unaware of his good fortune, Daniel rode on. Plunging into the wood, he had to slow his horse down so that he could pick a way through the trees and bushes with a degree of safety. He finally had something in his favour. Though most of the leaves had been shed, there was still a thick fretwork of branches above his head, darkening the interior of the wood and limiting visibility. It was like riding through a huge cavern with a timber roof. The deeper he penetrated, the murkier it got. When he stole a glance over his shoulder, he could barely make out the shadowy figures hunting him. Confident that their quarry could not escape, the soldiers had fanned out and were moving at a trot. Some of them taunted him, ignoring the scratch of bushes and the jab of low branches. Nothing would stop them. They were lusting for a kill.

Most people in that predicament would quail but fear was unknown to Daniel. What drove him on was an instinct for survival, sharpened by years in combat against French armies. Fear only induced panic and he always remained cool. As he zigzagged his way through the wood, his eyes were alert as he searched for ways to shake off the patrol. The half-dark that enfolded him had come to his aid but it now proved treacherous. Unable to see it properly, his horse misjudged the size of a fallen tree trunk. Instead of hopping easily over it, the animal caught its front hooves against the timber and pitched helplessly forward. Daniel was thrown from the saddle, hitting the ground hard and somersaulting twice before he came to a halt.

The horse was the first to get up. Momentarily dazed, Daniel scrambled to his feet but he was too late to stop his frightened mount from careering off into the undergrowth in the direction from which they’d just come. It was eventually caught by one of the soldiers.

‘I have his horse!’ he cried in triumph. ‘He’s on foot.’

The announcement produced a round of cruel laughter.

Daniel didn’t stay to listen to it. He was already running at full speed through the trees, dodging bushes, jumping logs, looking to left then right in a desperate search for a hiding place. His heart was pounding and his lungs were on fire. Any second he could be ridden down and hacked to death with a sabre. He came at last to a small clearing and clambered up a tree. Then he deliberately dropped his hat onto the ground below. Nestling against a thick branch, Daniel waited, trying to muffle the sound of his heavy breathing. He was no French wine merchant now but an experienced British soldier who’d been cornered by the enemy before. There had always been a way out in the past. The trick, he’d discovered, was to find it.

He could hear their voices, calling out to each other, placing bets on who would catch their prey first, boasting about what they’d do to him with their sharp blades. The only consolation was that they sounded a little distance away. Much nearer, however, were the jingle of harness and the rustle of hooves in the undergrowth. Somebody was coming towards him. Daniel had two weapons. One was the dagger he pulled out and the other was the element of surprise. What the soldier was looking for was a terrified fugitive, cowering under a hedge. He never thought to look up. When he saw the hat lying on the ground, he dismounted at once and drew his sword, remaining silent so that he didn’t lose the wager by rousing the others.

Daniel was ready. The moment the man bent down to retrieve the hat, Daniel hurled himself from the tree with a vengeance and hit him with his full weight. Stunned by the attack, the soldier had no time to resist. One hand over the man’s mouth, Daniel used the other to slit his throat. The soldier twitched and flailed impotently as his lifeblood drained inexorably away. Daniel kept him in an iron grip, squeezing him tight and waiting until he went limp before letting him drop slowly to the ground. Sheathing his dagger, Daniel recovered his hat, seized the discarded sabre and mounted the horse.

He then rode on again with renewed urgency. After a few minutes, he came to a path that meandered through the wood. It enabled him to pick up speed but he was not the first rider to find the path. One of the soldiers lurched out ahead of him on his horse to block his way. It was a direct challenge. Though he was in a regiment of foot, Daniel had also taken part in cavalry charges. He’d felt that soaring exhilaration before. Blood racing and sabre held aloft, he galloped towards the man and swung his arm with murderous force. Though the soldier parried the blow with his own sword, the sheer power of the strike snapped his wrist and he dropped the weapon with a howl of pain. Without even looking back, Daniel sped off into the darkness.

The farmer was short, stocky and round-shouldered. He used a wooden bucket to tip the mixture into the trough. The pig was on it immediately, grunting contentedly and dipping his nose to smell his food before gobbling it up. The animal was kept in a ramshackle pen with a small, low hut to protect it from bad weather. When winter came, it would be slaughtered and used to feed the family. A drumming sound made the farmer turn and he saw horsemen being conjured out of the gloom. They were French soldiers. Most of them sat tall in the saddle but one of them was hunched up as he nursed his broken wrist. Another man was slumped lifelessly across his mount. Towed along behind the cavalcade was a riderless horse.

Removing his hat, the farmer adopted a deferential tone.

‘Good day to you, good sirs,’ he said. ‘Can I help you?’

‘We’re looking for a fugitive,’ explained the sergeant. ‘He’s a man in a brown coat and has something of my build.’

‘We’ve seen nobody like that, sir.’

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