For Peggy Blackburn, with love
“A knight errant – to cut a long story short – is beaten up one day and made Emperor the next.”
by Miguel Cervantes (1547-1615)
Translated by J. M. Cohen
Sunday, June 14 to Tuesday, June 23rd, 1812
The tall man on horseback was a killer.
He was strong, healthy, and ruthless. Some men thought he was young to be a full Colonel in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, but no-one took advantage of his youth. A single glimpse of his curiously pale eyes, pale-lashed eyes, eyes that gave his strong, handsome face a chill of death, was enough to make men offer respect to Colonel Leroux.
Leroux was the Emperor’s man. He went where Napoleon sent him and he performed his master’s tasks with skill and pitiless efficiency. Now he was in Spain, sent there by the Emperor himself, and Colonel Leroux had just made a mistake. He knew it, he cursed himself for it, but he was also planning how to escape his self-imposed predicament.
He was trapped.
He had ridden with a cavalry escort to a miserable village huddled at the edge of the great plains of Leon and there had found his man, a priest. He had tortured the priest, stripping the skin inch by inch from the living body, and in the end, of course, the priest talked. They all talked to Colonel Leroux in the end. Yet this time he had taken too long. At the moment of victory, at that very moment when the priest could take the pain no longer and screamed out the name which Leroux had come so far to learn, the German cavalry erupted into the village. Men of the King’s German Legion who fought for Britain in this war savaged the French Dragoons, their sabres rising and falling, their hoofbeats drumming a rhythm behind the screams of pain, and Colonel Leroux had run.
He had grabbed one companion, a Captain of the cavalry escort, and together they had ridden desperately north, cutting their way through one group of Germans, and now, an hour later, they had stopped at the edge of a wood that grew about a sudden, quick stream that tumbled towards the River Tormes.
The Dragoon Captain looked behind. “We’ve lost them.”
“We haven’t.” Leroux’s horse was streaked with white sweat, its flanks heaved, and the Colonel felt the terrible heat of the sun smashing through his gorgeous uniform; red jacket looped with gold, green overalls reinforced with leather with the silver buttons running down each leg. His black fur colback, thick enough to stop a sword blow to the head, hung from his pommel. The light breeze could not stir his sweat-plastered blond hair. He suddenly smiled at his companion. “What’s your name?”
The Captain was relieved by the smile. He was frightened of Leroux and this sudden, unexpected friendliness was a welcome change. “Delmas, sir. Paul Delmas.”
Leroux’s smile was full of charm. “Well, Paul Delmas, we’ve done great things so far! Let’s see if we can lose them for good, eh?”
Delmas, flattered by the familiarity, smiled back. “Yes, sir.” He looked behind again, and again he could see nothing except for the bleached grassland silent under the heat. Nothing seemed to move except the wind-ripple of grass, and a solitary hawk, wings motionless, that easelessly rode the cloudless sky.
Colonel Leroux was not deceived by the emptiness. He had spotted the dead ground as they rode and he knew the Germans, good professionals, were out in the plain, spreading the cordon that would drive the fugitives towards the river. He knew too that the British were marching eastwards, that some of their men would be following the river, and he guessed that he and his companion were being driven into an ambush. So be it. He was trapped, outnumbered, but not beaten.
He could not be beaten. He had never been beaten, and now, above all other times, he had to regain the safety of the French army. He had come so near to success, and when he completed the job then he would hurt the British as they had rarely been hurt in this war. He felt the surge of pleasure at the thought. By God, he would hurt them! He had been sent to Spain to discover the identity of El Mirador, and he had succeeded this afternoon, and now all that remained was to take El Mirador back to some torture chamber and squeeze from the British spy the names of all the correspondents in Spain, Italy, and France who sent their messages to El Mirador in Salamanca. El Mirador collected information from throughout Napoleon’s empire, and though the French had long known the code-name, they had never discovered his identity. Leroux had, and so he had to escape this trap, he had to take his captive back to France, and there he would destroy the net of British spies who all worked for El Mirador. But first he must escape this trap.