He let his horse walk into the cool greenness of the wood. “Come on, Delmas! We’re not finished yet!”
He found what he wanted just a few yards into the wood. A fallen beech tree, its trunk rotten, lay in front of a tangle of brambles and wind-driven leaves from last year’s autumn. Leroux dismounted. “Time to work, Delmas!” His voice was optimistic and cheerful.
Delmas did not understand what they were doing, was frightened to ask, but he followed Leroux’s example and stripped off his jacket. He helped the Colonel clear a space behind the log, a hiding place, and Delmas wondered how long they would have to crouch in thorny discomfort until the Germans gave up the hunt. He smiled diffidently at Leroux. “Where do we hide the horses?”
“In a minute.” Leroux dismissed the question.
The Colonel seemed to be measuring the hiding place. He drew his sword and poked at the brambles. Delmas watched the sword. It was a weapon of exquisite craftsmanship, a straight-bladed, heavy cavalry sword made by Kligenthal as were most of the French cavalry blades, but this sword had been made specially for Leroux by the finest craftsman at Kligenthal. It was longer than most swords, heavier too, for Leroux was a tall, strong man. The blade was beautiful, a sheen of steel in the dappled green light of the wood, and the hilt and guard were made of the same steel. The handle was bound by silver wire, the sword’s sole concession to decoration, but despite its plainness, the weapon proclaimed itself as a beautiful, exquisitely balanced killing blade. To hold that sword, Delmas thought, must be to know what King Arthur felt when he slid Excalibur, smooth as grey silk, from the churchyard stone.
Leroux straightened up, seemingly content. “Anything behind us, Delmas?”
The Dragoon Captain turned. Nothing disturbed the peace of the beeches and oaks. “No, sir.”
“Keep watching. They’re not far behind.”
Leroux guessed he had ten minutes which was more than enough. He smiled at Delmas’s back, measured the distance, and lunged.
He wanted this kill to be quick, painless, and with a minimum of blood. He did not want Delmas to cry out and startle anyone who might be further into the trees. The blade, as sharp as the day it had left its maker, pierced the base of Delmas’s head. Leroux’s strength, an enormous strength, drove it through bone, through the spinal cord, and into the brain. There was a soft sigh and Delmas crumpled forward.
Leroux guessed he would be captured, and he knew too that the British would not let Colonel Leroux be exchanged for a British Colonel captured by the French. Leroux was a wanted man and he had seen to that himself. He worked by fear, he spread horror about his name, and all his victims, once dead, were inscribed with his name. He would leave a patch of skin untouched and on the patch he would incise two words. Leroux fecit. Just as if he were a sculptor boasting a fine piece of work, he would leave his mark. “Leroux made this.” If Leroux was captured he could expect no mercy. Yet the British would not give a fig for Captain Paul Delmas.
He changed uniforms with the corpse, working with his usual speed and efficiency, and when he was done he pushed his uniform, together with Delmas’s corpse, into the hiding place. He covered them swiftly with leaves and brambles, leaving the body to be eaten by beasts. He drove Delmas’s horse away, not caring where it went, and then he mounted his own horse, placed Delmas’s tall, brass helmet on his head, and turned north towards the river where he expected to be captured. He whistled as he walked the horse, making no attempt to hide his presence, and at his side hung the perfect sword, and in his head was the secret that could blind the British. Leroux could not be beaten.
Colonel Leroux was captured twenty minutes later. British Greenjackets, Riflemen, rose suddenly from cover inside the wood and surrounded him. For a moment Leroux thought he had made a terrible mistake. The British, he knew, were officered by gentlemen, men who took honour seriously, but the officer who captured him seemed as hard and ruthless as himself. The officer was tall, tanned, with dark hair hanging unruly beside a scarred face. He ignored Leroux’s attempt to be pleasant, ordering the Frenchman to be searched, and Leroux had a moment of alarm when a huge Sergeant, even bigger than the officer, found the folded piece of paper between saddle and saddlecloth. Leroux pretended to speak no English, but a Rifleman was brought who spoke bad French, and the officer questioned the Frenchman about the paper. It was a list of names, all Spanish, and beside each name was a sum of money.