The Final Day
Examining himself in his small cloudy square of polished tin, Armand tilted his chin left and right to take in the efforts of his servant, who stood to his left holding a long straight razor shaped like a much smaller hatchet in one hand and a damp cloth in the other. The man rocked from side to side on his feet nervously.
“Is that to your liking, Monsieur?” Armand hummed briefly then scratched at his jaw lightly.
“Yes, Simon, that will do.” Simon let out a small sigh of relief and set aside the razor on the nearby table, offering the young man the towel with which to dry the drops from his naked chest. The man took it and the servant went to the wardrobe to remove a clean, white shirt, doublet, breeches, and jerkin, laying them out upon the bed.
“You know, Simon,” began Armand as he set aside the shaving mirror, “I have a feeling today will be the day my fortune is made.”
“Very good, Monsieur,” said Simon absently as he picked up one of the bucket-topped boots and the scrubbing brush and sat on the floor to quickly polish the toes where he had missed the dirt and dust the previous night. Armand smiled to himself and turned.
“Come, dress me, and we shall see what joys Paris has for me this day.” Simon was quick to set aside the boot and brush and hurry over to his master’s aide, holding open the slashed trunk hose, careful to keep the fabric panes from tucking behind one another as Armand braced himself on his servant’s shoulders and stepped into them. Simon drew them up and while Armand tied the drawstrings about his waist and Simon knelt to tie the silver ribbon drawstrings at the back of his knees. Then Simon picked up the dark blue woolen doublet and came up behind Armand, who slid his arms into the vine-patterned sleeves. Then Simon circled around to close the buttons from bottom to top before fetching the sleeveless jerkin with similarly patterned panels and lifting it for Armand slide his arms through. Then he did up the buttons and returned to the wardrobe to bring the wide linen collar trimmed with lace, which he tied about Armand’s neck then straightened the collar on his shoulders so that the lace fell flat and neatly.
“My boots, Simon, fetch my boots!” Simon did as he was bid and offered Armand the newly brushed boots, which Armand tugged on as the church bells rang out across the city.
“Morbleu, it cannot already be so late in the morning! Hurry man else I will be late!” Simon rushed to fetch the plain brown leather baldric and its dangling rapier hanging from a peg near door as Armand lunged for the wardrobe to drag out his blue and white cassock and pull it hastily over his head. He grabbed the baldric from Simon and charged out the door, swinging the baldric over his body, the sword clattering in its sheath against his right hip.
“Monsieur, your gloves, your hat, your cloak!” Simon came haring after him bearing these items and Armand snatched them from him, turned, and ran down the cobblestone street. It was cold and snow had fallen in the night, but its pristine whiteness was marred, spattered with chamber pot refuse thrown from windows and mud churned up from passing carriages. Apprentices of bourgeois labourers clumped together for warmth as they made their slow way along and Armand cursed as he tried to pick his way around them.
“Move, damn you!” He pushed his way through, one hand holding his black, grey plumed hat to his head. He ignored one of the young men who threw a muddy snowball at his back despite wanting to turn around and chastise him thoroughly on the point of his blade. But he had no time to stop. His love was waiting for him, for them to speak to each other face to face for the first time without that boor of a marquis, her husband, hovering possessively nearby. They had shared looks across ballrooms and through her carriage window since the fall when her angelic fairness of skin and the sunshine gold of her hair had entranced him. She was so gentle, so frail, and so fearful of her husband that he wanted to sweep her away onto his mount and off to the south of France, to his ancestral home Lassalle in Autevielle, and protect her from the world. He was a knight, like those from the time of Charlemagne, riding to the honour of his fair maiden against the treacherous rogue who would see them torn asunder.
His heels skidded on the ground and his hands flew about wildly, trying to balance himself. His cloak billowed from where it hung over his right shoulder and he draped the end over his arm as he steadied himself and continued on his way, picking up his pace as he exited through the Porte Saint-Germain. Taking a deep breath of the clearer air beyond the city’s ancient walls, he looked towards the towering peaks of the Abbey Saint-Germain-des-Prés and kept them in sight as he wound through the streets of the most desirable quarter. The foire Saint-Germain was on his right and he glanced quickly through the archway to see that it was empty. It was clearly not a market day, but this was hardly a surprise when Christmas a short few days away and it was too cold to have much to offer for sale at market. Passing into the Rue du Four, the air smelled of fresh bread from the bakeries and communal ovens. Armand shivered, dropping his cloak from his arm and shifting it so it draped from both shoulders and down his back. Though he had not eaten, he was too anxious to be hungry.
He did not need to fight to remember the letter which summoned him nor the perfume with which it had been scented, a delicious scent of roses. It permeated his thoughts and gave him strength. She wanted to meet with him; she wanted to speak with him, privately, far from her gilded cage where no one could interrupt them. The Pré aux Clercs was the place for such a clandestine meeting. It was frequented by duelists contradicting the King’s edict against the sport despite the land being owned by the nearby abbey. However, it was so loved by duelists not only because of its remoteness, but also because of the lack of trees and their roots to encumber the feet. He swung right down the Rue des Ciseaux, home to the quarter’s industrious tailors catering to the area’s nobility. He turned left as he faced the eastern wall of the abbey then took the right fork in the road towards the small wooden church Saint Père centered in a square surrounded by two floor bourgeois houses with their small gardens protected by high stone walls. The Hôpital de la Charité was on his left past a small manor with twin chimneys and the gardens of the Queen Marguerite, the first wife of Henri IV, on his right, which looked solemn with its naked trees and rows of scraggly bushes empty of foliage.
The wind was much bitterer and sharper out here in the openness of the fields, he remarked to himself, but at least it no longer whistled so loudly like it did as whipped through the Paris streets. He adjusted his baldric and gripped his rapier’s hilt nervously through his black leather glove. The bells rang out; it was almost midday, but one could hardly tell with the grey, overcast sky through which none of the sun warmth could pierce and warm the earth below. Armand cast his gaze about, trying to take in the complete horizon in once glance, hoping to spot a carriage or a rider’s silhouette before it arrived upon him. A rattling from behind made him turn and quickly move off the road as carriage rattled past, and he could barely catch sight of the arms painted on the door, nor whether they bore a marquis’ crown above them. However, when the driver slowed the vehicle and turned the horses to direct them into the field a slight distance away, Armand knew this was the right carriage. He approached at a run then stopped suddenly as the door open and out stepped Claire wrapped in a black cloak with the hood pulled over her head. Yet, it was not her that caused his abrupt hesitation, but the booted foot which descended afterwards, followed by the man who owned it, a paunchy man at least two decades his senior, with a full, bushy brown mustache and sharply pointed beard.
“Claire, what is the meaning of this?” called Armand. The woman next to the marquis said nothing, her head bowed and body quivering, but yelped as her husband violently snatched her arm.
“Monsieur, you think yourself so protected by your precious commission that you attempt to seduce my wife and dishonor me?” bellowed the Marquis de Cruzy. He shook the woman in his grasp like she was little more than a doll while tried to paw at his gripping, ring-decorated fingers desperately.
“Monsieur le marquis, release your wife at once!” ordered Armand, gesticulating from him to her with wide gestures. “Can you not see how you hurt her, you cruel monster!”
“You dare order me about like some servant?” The marquis’ eyes seemed to pop from his face; he was so thus enraged with the insult. “You need to be chastised Monsieur Vicomte, at once. Hola! Come forward!” he called and suddenly Armand found himself surrounded by men, forty at least but he dared not take the time to count, all with swords already drawn. He could only assume they had hidden down amongst the scrubby bushes in the nearby gardens for there was no cover out here under which to conceal themselves.
“Goodbye Monsieur and may the Devil take you!”
“Monsieur, oh Monsieur, help me!” Claire cried as the marquis thrust her into the carriage.
“Madame, I’m coming!” Armand charged into the men before him, drawing his sword and elbowing one in the chest while parrying another’s insistent attack. The driver whipped the horses and turned the carriage around to return to the road. Armand made to run for it, but one of his attackers grabbed his cloak and pulled him back. He let him do this then quickly spun, driving his hilt into his nose and shoving him to the ground before leaping over to face another. Sword strikes rang in his ears like bells and pained yells from his successful blows spurred him on. He shed his cloak when one got close enough to cut the cord holding it and he wound it around his arm to use as a shield of sorts, blocking oncoming attacks with it then thrusting with the other. One swung at his head; he leapt back then charged forward, piercing him through the throat. He dropped like a stone and his comrades charged over him, pressing Armand warmly. He spun to knock away swords approaching his back then turned around again to face more, heart pounding in his ears and sweat shining on his face. One leapt on his back and they wrestled for a moment or two until he provided a useful shield, sliding off Armand’s back like a limp doll and nearly tripping him. His hat was lost in the scuffle, likely trampled. He felt the metal tips rip his clothes, making sharp stinging nicks in his skin, but he was growing tired. The men spawned like demons, two more taking the place of each fallen member. Armand spared a glance for the carriage and his heart fell. It had already disappeared. He was too late.
“Argh!” He doubled over, staring at the flattened, red snow. Burning pain surged through his belly. One of the men kicked him hard and blood spurted over his hand holding the wound as he fell.
“This one’s a dead’un,” sneered the assassin. “All you nobles are nothing more than rat shit, you musketeers even more so.” His fellows spat on the wounded soldier and left him lying there. Armand trembled, the warm wetness soaking into his clothes. He could see unmoving bodies lying in the snow within his vision, those of the men he had killed. The others, they had left them behind as carcasses for crows and other scavengers as a means to clean up their mess. He felt sick and the burning, a sick hot sensation that was creeping through his middle, brought tears to his eyes. Biting his lip, he rolled over on to his stomach to free his arm then tried to pull himself forward with it. Oh, it hurt! The wound stretched and he cried out then tried to stifle it by gritting his teeth. He stopped and laid there, his cheek pressed against the packed snow, his vision sliding in and out of focus between looking at a distant body and examining the tiny flakes in front of his eyes. His knees shuffled and he flinched, nausea creeping up his throat along with morbid curiosity and shame.
What if this was only a deep scratch and he was lying here for nothing? Abandoned by his love, the world seemed grey, the only warmth in it coming from the blood leaking from his body, but was he going to allow his father’s countless fencing lessons and his own experience to be wasted in such a manner? He closed his eyes and tried to even out his breaths. With shaking fingers, he probed the cut in his clothes down to his skin, but all he could feel was his life ebbing away as he lie here in the field. Numb with cold and the throb of pain, Armand stared at his breath misting in sparkling clouds in front of his face before the wind tore them away. A crow’s caw resounded in his ear and he flinched, trying to curl himself into a tighter ball and failing. He had not noticed the bird landing beside him, but now it was on his shoulder, tipping its head at him curiously, as if considering where it should start its meal.
“Monsieur!” Armand groaned and tucked in his chin. How wonderful to know that his last memory will be imagining his lackey’s voice as he is pecked to death by scavengers.
“My God, Monsieur, hang on. I will get help!” The sound of footsteps scuffing the frozen ground as they hurried away began to convince him that perhaps he was not so delirious, but when help was not immediate, he reconsidered this and resigned himself to his pain. It was spreading; at least he thought it was. His guts felt as if they were being set alight, dowsed then relit repeatedly with the slightest movement. The edges of his vision flickered between grey and black and the corners of his eyes were sore where tears had frozen. He could feel the tiny, icy tracks stuck to his face and lashes. Yet he was warm, feverishly so despite the bitter Parisian cold. He wanted to sleep, to close his weary eyes and forget Claire’s terrified face as she cried out for him to save her and he failed to get near.
The pain was not so bad now. He carefully wiped his hand in a patch of white snow to clean off some of the drying blood then checked his wound again. The flow was much slower now, sluggish even, but what he did touch made his hand itch and burn terribly. He wiped it half-heartedly on an upper panel of his doublet then let it fall into the red snow. The warm numbness slipped into his bones and the air felt balmy against his skin as he was swept in memories. It brought about childish dreams of Autevielle in the peak of summer when everyone fled indoors to escape the heat and his mother, his sweet departed mother, would shake her head at his antics and kiss his forehead with her soft lips, stroking the black hair away from his temples. He sighed and nuzzled the ground, closing his eyes. He could almost see her before him, her black curls swept up about her pale face with its gentle smile. He could almost smell the scent of her perfume, something sweet and flowery like most other perfumes.
“See here, my son,” she took his hand and led him into the manor’s gardens blooming and sparkling with dewdrop crystals. He was about seven or eight, he thought. “See the rose?”
“Yes Maman,” he replied. The flower was blurry, the colour undefined. “It’s pretty.”
“Indeed. But not everything pretty is safe or gentle. They have thorns that will pick at you if you take them the wrong way. Very much like ladies.” She stopped to cough. She was already falling ill by then. He rubbed her back, at least as high as he could reach, and offered his tiny handkerchief, which she waved away. When she regained her breath, she took his hand again.
“Come my son,” she squeezed it gently in her own, smiling down at him. “Come with me.”