“So what do we do, sir?” asked Holden.
“We do what they did the night they attacked us at Queen Anne’s Square. We wait until nightfall. And then we go in there, and we kill people.”
9 OCTOBER 1757
That date above says 9 October, which I scribbled there, rather optimistically, at the end of the previous entry, intending that this should be a contemporaneous account of our attempt to breach the chateau. In fact, I’m writing this several months later and, to detail what happened that night, I have to cast my mind back . . .
How many would there be? Six, on the last occasion I came. Would Reginald have strengthened the force in the meantime, knowing I might come? I thought so. Doubled it.
Make it twelve, then, plus John Harrison, if he was still in residence. And, of course, Reginald. He was fifty-two, and his skills would have faded but, even so: I knew never to underestimate him.
So we waited, and hoped they’d do what they eventually did, which was to send out a search party for the missing patrol, three of them, who came bearing torches and drawn swords, marching across the dark lawn with torchlight dancing on grim faces.
We watched as they materialized from the gloom and melted away into the trees. At the gates they began calling the guard’s name then hurried along the outside of the low perimeter towards where the patrol was supposed to be.
His body was where I’d left it, and in the trees nearby Holden, Jenny and I took up position. Jenny stayed back, armed with a knife but out of the action; Holden and I were further forward, where we both climbed trees—Holden with some difficulty—to watch and wait, steeling ourselves as the search party came across the body.
“He’s dead, sir.”
The party leader craned over the body. “Some hours ago.”
I gave a bird call, a signal to Jenny, who did what we’d agreed. Her scream for help was launched from deep within the forest and pierced the night.
With a nervous nod, the party leader led his men into the trees, and they thundered towards us, to where we perched, waiting for them. I looked through the trees to see the shape of Holden a few yards away and wondered if he was well enough, and I hoped to dear God he was, because in the next moment the patrol was running into the trees below us and I launched myself from the branch.
I took out the leader first, ejecting my blade so it went through his eye and into his brain, killing him instantly. From my crouching position I sliced up and back and opened the stomach of the second man, who dropped to his knees with his insides glistening through a gaping hole in his tunic then fell facedown to the soft forest floor. Looking over, I saw the third man drop off the point of Holden’s sword, and Holden look over, even in the dark the triumph written all over his face.
“Good screaming,” I said to Jenny, moments later.
“Pleased to be of assistance.” She frowned. “But listen, Haytham, I’m not staying in the shadows when we get there.” She raised the knife. “I want to deal with Birch myself. He took my life away from me. Any mercy he showed by not having me killed I shall repay by leaving him his cock and . . .”
She stopped and looked over at Holden, who knelt nearby and looked away.
“I’m . . .” she began.
“That’s all right, Miss,” said Holden. He raised his head and, with a look I’d never seen on his face before, said, “But you make sure you do take his cock and balls before you finish him. You make that bastard suffer.”
We made our way around the perimeter back to the gate, where a lone sentry looked agitated, perhaps wondering where the search party had got to; perhaps sensing something was wrong, his soldier’s instinct at work.
But whatever instinct he had wasn’t enough to keep him alive, and moments later we were ducking through the wicket gate and keeping low to make our way across the lawn. We stopped and knelt by a fountain, holding our breaths at the sound of four more men who came from the front door of the chateau, boots drumming on the paving, calling names. A search party sent to find the first search party. The chateau was on full alert now. So much for a quiet entry. At least we’d reduced their numbers by . . .
Eight. On my signal, Holden and I burst from behind the cover of the fountain base and were upon them, cutting all three down before they even had a chance to draw their swords. We’d been seen. From the chateau there came a shout, and in the next instant there was the sharp report of musket fire and balls smacked into the fountain behind us. We ran for it. Towards the front door, where another guard saw us coming and, as I thundered up the short steps towards him, tried to escape through it.
He was too slow. I rammed my blade through the closing door and into the side of his face, using my forward momentum to shove open the door and burst through, rolling into the entrance hall as he fell away with blood sluicing from his shattered jaw. From the landing above came the crack of musket fire, but the gunman had aimed too high and the ball smacked harmlessly into wood. In an instant I was on my feet and charging towards the stairway, bounding up towards the landing, where the sniper abandoned his musket with a yell of frustration, pulled his sword from its sheath and came to meet me.
There was terror in his eyes; my blood was up. I felt more animal than man, working on pure instinct, as though I had levitated from my own body and was watching myself fight. In moments I had opened the gunman and toppled him over the banister to the entrance hall below, where another guard had arrived, just in time to meet Holden as he burst through the front door with Jenny behind him. I leapt from the landing with a shout, landing softly on the body of the man I’d just thrown over and forcing the new arrival to swing about and protect his rear. It was all the opportunity Holden needed to run him through.
With a nod I turned and ran back up the stairs, in time see a figure appear on the landing, and I ducked at the crack of gunfire as a ball slapped into the stone wall behind me. It was John Harrison and I was upon him before he had a chance to draw his dagger, snatching a fistful of his nightclothes and forcing him to his knees, drawing back my blade arm to strike.
“Did you know?” I snarled. “Did you help take my father and corrupt my life?”
He dropped his head in assent and I plunged the blade into the back of his neck, severing the vertebrae, killing him instantly.
I drew my sword. At Reginald’s door, I halted, throwing a look up and down the landing, then leaned back and was about to kick it open when I realized it was already ajar. Crouching, I pushed it, and it swung inwards with a creaking sound.