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Angels of MercyChapter 3

by: Christina

    Sir Percy Blakeney had watched his wife disappear around the last bend of the path, then, dressed in ragged finery and bits of disguises, gained a grudging admittance to the lower grotto, where the aristocratic “traitors” to the French government took refuge.  Ignoring the surly doorman, he stepped inside the gates and gave the place a disdainful once-over, bounders in tow.

    “Psst—Percy,” hissed Lord Tony, “Is grotto by any chance another word for Le Cave?”

    Andrew shot him a dirty look.  “Make way,” he announced loudly.  “Make way for the Comte de Medaille.”  Several men along the walls looked at him angrily.

    Tony was right—the grotto beneath the abbey proper proved little more than a cave, dank and badly lit, with several cots along the walls, and the rolled-up evidence of pallets on the floor.  Fourteen people—mostly men, but a few of whom were women, and one of whom was a very small girl—lurked around the edges of the room, gazing warily at the newcomers.  Besides the entryway, two arched openings led from the front room.  Through one, Percy heard the distinct babble of running water.  That matched with the reports he’d received—“a vast interlocking series of caves, which have yet to be fully explored.”  Percy raised one eyebrow, fully immersed in his “snooty noble” act, and strode to the nearest empty cot, sitting down upon it as if claiming some new country.  The occupants of the room shrank back against the walls.

    All except one particularly burly man, who was striding angrily towards the Scarlet Pimpernel.  “Excuse me,” he said in a tone that meant anything but,  “Excuse me, Comte, but that bed is taken.”

    “Yes!” Percy responded brightly.  “By me, my good man!  It’s so wonderful to encounter a society where rank still counts for something.”

    The man’s eyes narrowed.  The League’s eyes widened.  Was their leader deliberately attempting to get beaten into a bloody pulp?  “You’re not by any chance related to Henri de Medaille?”  questioned their new enemy.

    “Why yes, he’s my cousin!” returned Sir Percy in the same infuriatingly bright tones.  “Excellent man!  Just slipped away from our esteemed government, or so I’d heard.”

    “He slipped away,” the large man said, in tones that implied murder, “by betraying his fellow lodgers, my cousins, the de Pizans.”

    Percy said nothing, but examined his nails unconcernedly, his whole demeanor speaking for him in a loud, “Good riddance!”

    That last small gesture proved enough.

    “Draw, Sir!”

    “What, Sir?”

    Percy found himself confronted with the business end of a very sharp rapier, only inches from his nose.  “I said draw your sword.”

    “Aha,” he stared at his opponent, for a moment, in distaste.  “Only too happy to oblige,” he mocked, “for a gentleman.”

    All eyes in the room had been on the exchange.  Dewhurst, Glynde, Ffoulkes, and Hastings, who had previously watched in dismay, only shook their heads in frustration at their leader’s antics.

    “Since you are so eager to spit me, Sir,” said Blakeney, “engarde!”

    De Pizan definitely had the advantage.  He was every bit as tall as Lord Blakeney, and significantly heavier.  Yet despite his extra weight, he lunged and parried quickly, forcing his opponent back by virtue of impetus alone.  Faster than the untrained eye could see, a feint—a barely blocked lunge—a wild twist of the hand which caught Sir Percy’s knuckles, drawing a slight rivulet of blood from the middle of his hand.

    De Pizan paused.  “Do you surrender, Monsieur?”

    Percy seemed to consider.  “Goodness knows I should,” he said, breathing hard, “but I simply cannot surrender to an inferior.”

    Clearly angered, de Pizan nevertheless possessed the civility to ask once more, in threatening tones, “Do you surrender?”  He ran his rapier along Percy’s, twisting his wrist violently upwards.

    The result was a small movement of Sir Percy’s sword hand, and no change at all in his relaxed demeanor.

    “That should have disarmed you!” the larger man exclaimed in shocked tones.

    Percy inclined his head in acknowledgement.  “Perhaps it should have,” he agreed, “But it is also quite possible that you have had your moment of glory, and it is now time to fight!”  And so saying, he lunged at the bigger man, startling him into a careening step backwards.

    All those who have ever seen the Scarlet Pimpernel in action agree that his movements are sure, and almost preternaturally swift.  Such dexterity stems, his friends surmise, from his buoyant confidence.  Swords danced to music created from their own blows—an art form in metal.  Never for a second did Blakeney hesitate, until, in a wild move, de Pizan’s weapon flew from his hand, to be caught neatly by Hastings and planted in the dirt which served them as a floor.

    Percy pushed his opponent back a step, right up against the stone wall, the tip of a sword at his throat.  In this man’s eyes, he found a scorching hatred for the death of his cousins.  The hatred, however, was not pure.  With it warred acknowledgement for a fellow swordsman, and the realization that he had been fairly beaten, if perhaps he had been tricked as to the odds themselves.

    “Sir,” said Blakeney, slightly ruffled from his exertions, but his manners those of the perfect gentleman,  “I am not related to de Medaille, nor do I approve of the scoundrel’s treatment of your most honorable cousins.  It was cruelty on my part to deceive and bait you so, but I wished your companions to see that both my friends and myself were effective, and not some half-baked lunatics.  I wish,” he said, lowering the sword, “to offer you a token of my apology, a small gift from my leader himself, which I hope you will accept, however minute it may be.” So saying, he pulled a piece of parchment from his doublet, and handed it to the man.

    De Pizan looked at the paper suspiciously for a moment before opening it.  He took an interminable length of time reading it over, and over again.  Then he began to chuckle.  “They seek them here,” he read to the room at large.  “They seek them there. /From sunny Spain to Belgium fair. /I swear by all heaven /You’ll exit this hell /Respectfully, the Pimpernel.”

    The room erupted into a buzz of conversation.  “It is signed—“ the man continued, shouting to be heard above the noise, “—with a small, star-shaped flower.”

    For several minutes thereafter, the chaos of hysterical thanks overtook the grotto.

    “Why does he always have to show off?” murmured Dewhurst to Hastings.

    Sir Edward shrugged.  “At least it inspires them with confidence, or some such.”

    When they had quieted somewhat, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes stepped forward.  “You have gotten this far on your own, which is a tremendous help.  As I’m sure you all know, however, a journey through the Pyrenees is difficult and taxing, even in these days.  Robespierre’s men are better equipped, and hence faster.  And they are on their way here from Paris as we speak.  But—” he spoke, quieting the anxious murmurs, “—they are not here yet.  Time is of the essence.  I am Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, and I would like to introduce my fellow members of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel—” he indicated the men, who stepped forward at their names. “—Lord Dewhurst, Lord Hastings, Lord Glynde, and Lord Galveston.”  Percy gave a small nod of acknowledgement at his assumed identity.  “Ladies and gentleman, you may place your faith in us.”

    As the French aristocrats approached their liberators with countless questions, Sir Percy excused himself, and wandered into the next cavern.  He needed to think, and he wanted to explore his surroundings.  Percy had not seen Angèle de St. Cyr for years before the Terror, but he knew her face.  He had observed, anxiously, that she was not among the refugees, and whatever this meant for their mission, he was sure he would not like it.

    This cavern, too, held only a dim light, as did the caves beyond it, and Percy wondered who kept the lamps fueled, and why.  He was fairly sure that only the main series of caves were lit, but even so—if the sisters kept no contact with the occupants of the grottos, why bother?

    The cave held nothing other than rocks and dirt.  Percy passed all the way around its perimeter once with the lamp which he had snagged for himself from the main room, and made careful note of the aperture through which he had entered—as if the noise alone would not have guided him back.  Then, he ducked into the passage at the far side of this cavern.

    It was, literally, a passage, of similar dimensions to the hallways in his own home.  The walls were lit with sconces, placed in regular intervals, but Percy kept his own lamp high, letting his eyes skim over the ground, the walls, the dank ceiling.

     He emerged barely two minutes later into a small, low-roofed cavern, lit even more dimly than its fellows.  He had no real objective in mind now, other than exploring.  Find all possible alternatives, in case it becomes necessary to use them, he often told the bounders.

    This cavern, too, held only a dim light, as did the caves beyond it, and Percy wondered who kept the lamps fueled, and why.  He was fairly sure that only the main series of caves were lit, but even so—if the sisters kept no contact with the occupants of the grottos, why bother?

    The passages beyond this cavern stared at him like dark eyes.  As Sir Percy had to stoop to explore the less-than-spacious area, he was already looking at the ground when he saw it.  Dirt half-covered the scrap, and he tried to persuade himself that it was something else.  Even in that first moment, though, he knew.  Bending, he retrieved the token and brushed it off.
Sure enough, he held the small, tri-colored symbol which French soldiers wore pinned to their uniforms.

    Holding the lamp even higher above his bowed head, Percy grabbed the bottom of it, stilling the swinging motion which threw long, distorted shadows upon the walls of the cave.  Inch by inch, he explored the room, looking for any other sign that something unusual had happened here.

    There!  Along the wall of the room, leading to a side passage.  The dirt which covered the cave’s rock floor was far more compact than in the surrounding area.  Much as if a great many people had passed this way, and beyond, into the darkness of innumerable caverns which no one had charted.

On to Chapter 4

"If you loved me you would not go!"