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Authors: Brian Falkner

Clash of Empires

BOOK: Clash of Empires
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For Sandra and Mick Thornton, who added a little madness. And for Mike Rehu, who added a little magic.

 

PROLOGUE

September 24, 1815

 

CHÂTEAU DE BREST, FRANCE

The young French soldier shivers, and not from the cold, although here at the parapet of the castle the wind is icy and pitiless.

From behind him and below come deep grunting sounds and the rattle of chains. That area of the castle courtyard is covered with hastily erected screens of sailcloth to keep out prying, spying eyes. He cannot see what is there. But he knows what is there.

A bellow rumbles around the stone walls of the courtyard, loud enough to shake the tarpaulins and tremble his sword in its scabbard. The devil's creatures walk the cobblestones below him but even they are not the reason for his terror. The soldier does not fear the creatures as much as he fears the devil, and the devil surely stalks the castle this night.

The castle is old. Some of the stones of its walls were cut by Roman slaves, fifteen centuries before. It stands at the mouth of the Penfield River in Brest, at the westernmost tip of France, isolated on a rocky outcrop, protected on three sides by the sea and on all sides by high walls, towers, and ramparts. The stonework is dark and imposing, rising on a sharp angle from the rock-strewn shore.

At night the castle has a presence of its own, as if it has absorbed the souls of those who have died defending and attacking its thick walls.

The young soldier stands to attention at the battlements, his musket beside him, stock on the ground, barrel nestled in the crook of his right arm. He faces the sea, which smolders with embers of moonlight.

He is grateful for the moon. Without it he would have nothing but the flickering amber of the storm lamps that line the wall.

The silvery light falls also on the ships, moored at the wharves in the river mouth below the castle. Their masts sway in the strong breeze. The creaking and groaning of wood and rope is relentless.

More ships lie at anchor in the middle of the river. Many ships.
Enough for an invasion
, the soldier thinks, but he does not express this thought out loud, not even to Corporal Joubert. Words can be overheard, and to talk to anyone of an invasion fleet, or of the monsters caged below him, would surely lead to the separation of his head from his body.

Where is Joubert? He disappeared many minutes ago and has not yet returned.

Desertion of duty, even for a moment, is an offense punishable by the most torturous death. Joubert knows this, but as a veteran of the Peninsular War, and of the recent victory in the Southern Netherlands, near Waterloo, Joubert thinks himself to be untouchable. He is wrong.

The young soldier stands guard alone, shivering.

On the far side of the river are the taverns and bawdy houses of the town, and as the wind shifts occasionally, it brings the shouts, laughter, and music of the sailors making the most of their shore leave.

Now there are footsteps on the walkway behind and the soldier immediately turns and presents arms.

“Halt,” he says. “Who goes there?”

“Put away your bayonet before you stick yourself with it,” comes a hushed voice and suppressed laughter. Then out of the shadows of the staircase swaggers Joubert. He is not alone. He has his musket in one hand, and the other hand is entwined in the smock of a girl. She is perhaps seventeen, slender but womanly. As they approach, the soldier can see that she is both attractive and afraid.

“I caught a stray,” Joubert says. His words are a little slurred and the soldier thinks he has shared rum with some of the sailors.

“Parisian pig,” the girl says.

Her beauty is marred by a crooked nose, broken and long-healed. Perhaps this girl is not unused to a fight.

“She must leave,” the young soldier says. “We must attend to our duty.”

“Why should the ship rats have all the fun tonight?” Joubert asks. “There is no danger to guard against. Europe is ours and Napoléon has the British cowering like pups on their lonely rock.”

“If … he … was to see this, your death would be an unpleasant one,” the soldier says.

“You are too serious,” Joubert says. “He is tending to far more important matters, or is asleep in his warm bed. Come, we will have our fun tonight also.”

He wrenches at the girl's smock as he says this and there is a ripping sound. The girl spits at him and slaps his face. He laughs drunkenly.

“I will even stand guard and give you the first kiss,” Joubert says.

“I will not,” the young soldier says, and turns back to the battlement, standing again to attention.

“As you wish,” Joubert says, and there is another tearing sound.

“You should pray that the devil does not see you,” the soldier says.

Joubert begins to laugh but stops abruptly as a new voice intrudes.

“Who is this devil you speak of?”

The soldier spins, raising his musket. “Halt,” he says. “Who goes there?”

“Colonel Valois,” is the reply.

Joubert lets go of the girl, who falls to the ground and then picks herself up, trying to piece her clothing back together. He snatches his musket, which he had leaned against the battlements.

Valois is the commandant of the castle. He emerges slowly from the darkened staircase as another figure comes into view behind him.

Valois says, “And General Thibault.”

The young soldier freezes, unable to move or speak.

The devil stands before him on the castle wall.

This was a handsome man once. He wears the uniform of a general in the imperial guard, yet without the bicorne hat that befits his rank. Three parallel scars extend from the top of his head diagonally down his face, taking with them his right eye and ear. On his scalp they plow furrows where no hair grows. His sideburns are thick and he has an earring of gold in the ear that remains. He has one complete arm: his right. The left is a withered, scarred stump, ending just below his elbow. His skin is black, not all over like an African, but in patches around the scars, perhaps from infection, or disease. His only hand is encased in a black leather glove.

The girl is rigid, paralyzed at the sight. She sways, then General Thibault takes two steps toward her, surely more swiftly than any human could move. He grabs her. He tucks the remains of his left arm under her legs and lifts her effortlessly, murmuring soothing words into her ear.

“This is how you guard my precious creatures?” Thibault asks. His tone is light, but his voice is a rasp, the scars across his throat evidence of why.

Neither Joubert nor the young soldier speaks.

“By making whores of the young women of the town?” Thibault asks.

Still there is silence.

“This is the daughter of the baker,” Thibault says. “I know him and I know his family. His baguettes and brioches are the best in Brittany. You would sully the daughter of my friend?”

“Your names,” Valois demands.

Now Joubert finds his voice. “Joubert,” he says, and with a nod at the soldier, “and Lefevre. But I am at fault. Lefevre had no part in this.”

The young soldier, Lefevre, leans his musket against the castle wall. He withdraws his sword, kneels, and offers it hilt-first to the general.

Thibault sighs. “Put away your sword,” he says.

Lefevre bows his head before rising, sheathing his sword, and retrieving his firearm.

“But this is the last time you will neglect your duties,” Thibault says.

“Yes, sir,” Joubert manages in a shaky voice. “Never again, sir.”

“I know your names, Joubert, Lefevre,” Thibault says. “I know you.”

Lefevre can barely breathe.

Thibault stares at them with his one good eye. It burns into the young soldier. Thibault says, “This eye sees you when I am standing before you.” He turns his face, bringing his eye patch into the light of the storm lamps. “And this eye sees you when I am not.”

A cold shudder shakes the young soldier so violently that he almost drops his musket.

The girl wakes, staring at the soldiers as if she cannot bring herself to look at that which holds her.

“Rest, girl. These men will not bedevil you again,” Thibault says.

She turns her head toward his face and freezes, rigid like a statue.

Thibault turns to the sea, taking a deep breath of the salty sea air and gazing over the forest of masts in the river and at the wharves below.

“Come, Valois,” he says, turning back toward the staircase, the girl struggling in his arms.

Valois turns abruptly after glaring fiercely at the two guards.

Another bellow comes from the courtyard below and Thibault stops. He turns in that direction, smiling, as if he approves of the sound. He leans out over the inner wall and casually opens his arms. There is no sound from the girl as she hits the topmost sailcloth with a flat, smacking sound and slides off the edge.

There is another sound, a moist thud as she hits the cobblestones of the courtyard, far below, followed by the rattling of heavy chains and the scraping of immense feet.

Then come the screams, but they are brief.

“She would not have seen anything, General,” Valois protests as they descend into the shadow of the stairs.

“You can be sure?” Thibault asks.

“No, General, I cannot,” Valois says with sadness. “What about the guards? Are they to escape punishment?”

“You would rather I took their heads?” Thibault asks.

“Their offense was great, yet they seem to have escaped lightly,” Valois says. “You have frightened them, no more.”

“Scared men I can use,” Thibault says. “Dead men are no good to me.”

 

Book One

INVASION

September 25–October 4, 1815

 

SAUR-KILLERS

The officer at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, southeast of London, wears the uniform of an artillery major of the Third Netherlands Infantry Division. But he is neither a soldier nor Dutch.

BOOK: Clash of Empires
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