All Things Are Lights – Day 57 of 200

He tried desperately to lift his sword to protect himself.

Just then the highwayman uttered a sick, squealing noise and dropped the club.

A gleaming steel point protruded from the man’s belly. The highwayman moaned again, pitched forward, and fell at Roland’s feet as Guido jerked his sword out of the man’s back.

Roland’s pulses pounded in his temples.

He had just time to smile his gratitude at Guido when he saw Didier charging him, whirling his ax over his head. Roland gripped the sword hilt with both hands and found, thank Saint Michel, that there was still some strength in his arm. His back hurt abominably, but he made himself ignore it and lifted the sword, slowly retreating from Didier.

With a wordless roar, Didier sprang at him and swung the ax at Roland’s head.

Roland raised his sword back over his shoulder and then with all his force brought the edge of the blade hard against the ax handle. There was a loud crack.

The head of the ax flew through the air. Roland heard it crash through bushes and thump somewhere in the darkness.

Didier, disarmed, backed away, flanked by his two remaining henchmen, all breathing like spent horses.

Roland and Guido were panting heavily, too, but Roland was determined to fight on.

The highwaymen’s eyes were wide with terror.

“Now you know what it is to come up against knights,” Roland taunted them.

Didier let the broken ax handle fall to the grass. “I cry you mercy, Messires,” he said sullenly.

At his action, the other two brigands dropped their dagger and pitchfork.

Roland peered into the blackness of the forest below the summit of the hill. There was no longer any sign of the women who had fled.

He turned his eyes again to the empty-handed men.

“That is better,” he said, forcing himself to smile though hatred for these filthy creatures still smoldered within him. “It is not you lads I am after. Just tell me who paid you to cut off my jongleur’s stones.”

“I have sworn not to tell,” Didier answered defiantly.

“Of course you have, and you are a man of your word, are you not?” said Roland, keeping to the friendly tone. He moved closer to Didier till he could smell the rank sweat of the man’s fear.

“They call you Longarm, do they not? Didier Longarm. Let us see if they speak true. Hold your right arm out here, and let me see how long it is.”

Didier hesitated, and Roland, still smiling, prodded him in the ribs with his sword.

Slowly Didier raised his arm, watching Roland fearfully.

“By Saint Michel!” Roland exclaimed in mock wonderment. “It is long.”

In no more than the space between two heartbeats, Roland brought up his sword, two-handed, and sliced down on Didier’s wrist.

The great force of the blow sent the severed hand to the ground with a thud, and Didier fell to his knees, screaming.

Roland stood over him, the sword pointed at his chest.

“Now you will tell me what I want to know, or I will shorten the other arm. Then your legs.”

“I will tell you, Messire,” Didier sobbed. “It was the chief steward of the Count de Gobignon’s house in Paris. Oh, please, Messire, have pity. Do not let me bleed to death. I will give you all the silver he paid us.”

Amalric. Roland could see the pale, arrogant face of the Count de Gobignon. Him. But why this way? He is no coward, to strike through hired ruffians. And why these poor, stupid brutes? God knows there are more accomplished killers in the kingdom of France.

“Why did the Count hire you to cripple my jongleur?”

But Didier was writhing on the ground, moaning.

One of the other men said hesitantly, “The steward said we were to lie in wait for you. That you would come after us to avenge your jongleur. He said you plan to challenge the Count at the King’s tournament next month. The Count thinks you are too lowly for him to fight, so he wanted to get rid of you beforehand.”

But I hadn’t even decided to enter the tournament, Roland thought. His heart felt like a burning brand, and the blood around it boiled. I see. He must have planned that either I would die ignominiously here in the forest, or, if I were able to overcome these creatures, I would be goaded into challenging him. Either way he expected to trap me, and these men are but his pawns.

But these pawns also took away Perrin’s manhood forever.

“You will not bleed to death,” he said to Didier Longarm.

There was a brief flicker of hope in Didier’s pain-twisted face just before Roland plunged the sword into his chest.

The man who had told Roland about Amalric’s plan screamed in terror.

Roland shouted, “Did you think I would let any of you live, after what you did to Perrin?” He brought the blade down on the screaming man’s head, splitting it in two.

The last of the highwaymen started to run down the hillside into the woods.

Roland sheathed his sword and drew his dagger.

In the bright moonlight, the man was a clear target. Roland took careful aim at the center of the fleeing man’s back and cast the dagger just as the highwayman was reaching the big trees.

The man went down with a despairing shriek. He lay groaning as Roland came up to him. Roland stooped and pulled the dagger out of his back. He rolled the body over with his foot. In the dying man’s eyes he saw the moon reflected, and the same anguish he had seen earlier that evening in Perrin’s eyes.

“Please —” the highwayman choked, gagging on his blood.

“Ask God to forgive you when you see Him,” said Roland. “I cannot.”

He knelt and dragged the sharp edge of his dagger across the man’s throat, wishing the veins he was severing were Amalric’s.

He plunged the dagger into the earth five times to clean it, then sheathed it. He walked away quickly, not wanting to see the highwayman’s death struggle.

Guido was waiting for him by the red coals of the shack. The odor of smoldering wood was heavy in the air.

“May Jesus Christ receive them mercifully,” Guido said. “They were fools who knew no better. We can leave it to their women to bury them, I suppose. You are crueler than I thought you to be, Sire Orlando.”

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