Til Death Do Us Part
by Vicki Kirchhoff-Martin
Fleurette Riche' du Paroisse stared out the window of the carriage. The poorly travelled road through the woods on the border of Montaigne and Castille was perfect for an ambush. It was a site she might have chosen herself.
Her right hand felt for the velvet pouch she wore at her waist. In addition to money, it held valuable information on Montaigne troop movements through occupied Castille as well as all the information her husband Louis and the Montaigne generals had been able to collect on El Vago.
It was information Los Vagos needed desperately. Fleurette had sent a plea to them disguised as a letter to her beloved Henrique's mother. It seemed only to include information on the time and place of her wedding and she had been very careful not to give too many details away in case it did not make it to its intended recipient. Between the Montaigne military and the Inquisition, there were a hundred ways her message could fail and fall into the wrong hands but she had to take the chance.
With that in mind, she knew it was possible that nothing would happen. She and Louis would continue to his family's country estate unmolested and the information she carried would have to be burned for fear of it being discovered. Los Vagos would continue their crusade without her help and she would be married to a heartless and cruel man for the rest of her life. It was a risk she had been willing to take for the people of Montaigne… and those of Castille.
No one in Montaigne knew how she had spent the two years she was supposed to have been safely learning to be a proper lady in a secluded convent. She had learned much in those years, but it had nothing to do with being ladylike. She had learned to fight, had learned to move about under cover of darkness and learned to love in the arms of a Castillian peasant named Henrique.
From her parents to her new husband, everyone thought Fleurette was a compliant lady content to accept her place and duty to her husband and L'Empereur. Few would expect the soft spoken, quiet girl was a devout Vaticine and a traitor.
The Riche' du Paroisse had a reputation for cruelty and Louis was no exception. He had moved into a manor house in the northern portion of occupied Castille and had the local peasants work on his lands. They were no more than slaves; beaten when they did not work and killed when they were no longer useful. Rumours of such atrocities had made it difficult for Fleurette's parents to agree to the wedding, but his family was very powerful and they were only minor nobility. The Riche's had made certain that it was worth it to her family to agree.
She prayed the letter had been delivered as she directed and prayed that those who had welcomed her with open arms in Castille, would take the opportunity she had offered them. She also quietly begged Theus for forgiveness.
"You are quiet, my flower," Louis said, startling her out of her thoughts.
She kept her eyes on her hands. "You did not bid me speak, husband. I did not wish to disturb you."
"That is what I like about you, my darling," he said. "You understand whose desires matter most. You know who your master is and you do his bidding. As long as you remember your place, we will get along very well."
"My place is with you, husband," she replied.
She was glad he preferred she keep her eyes down or he might have caught the anger and hatred in them. Like most of the Montaigne nobility, he had chosen favor of L'Empereur over faith in Theus. Fleurette had not forgotten. Her devotion to Theus had never waivered.
The carriage lurched to a stop. Louis stuck his head out the window to shout at the driver and then stopped. She saw the sick smile crawl onto his face as he whispered, "El Vago."
He drew his rapier and left the carriage. Fleurette peered out the other side. She did not recognize the horse or the bearing of El Vago as one she had seen before. He was tall and lithe and his bearing spoke of a grace and nobility that the others had lacked. She had been told that there were several dons who had worn the mask, but this was the first one she had ever seen. He saluted Louis. "I have come for your valuables," he said. "I have no wish for your death. I can feed five Castillian families for a year with the rings on your fingers alone."
"Thief!" Louis spat. "You steal my workers, rob my lands and now you have the audacity to threaten me. You have meddled in my affairs for the last time. En garde."
El Vago dismounted with a fluid ease, his own rapier drawn and ready. "If you are so eager to be defeated, Senor, I can happily accommodate you."
Fleurette crept silently from the carriage. Louis was an experienced swordsman and she wanted to be certain he did not win the duel. She had worked too hard for this opportunity to have it fall apart. She had nowhere to hide her rapier, but the flowing sleeves of her gown had made it easy for her to wear the wrist sheath for her dagger.
El Vago and Louis fought. It was more like a dance with Louis' rapier and main gauche weaving a wall of metal between himself and El Vago's blade. The two were well matched thought it was quite clear that while El Vago was simply trying to subdue his opponent, Louis was going to for the kill and becoming more and more frustrated as he realized it was not going to be an easy task.
Fleurette dropped her dagger into her left hand with the blade concealed beneath her long sleeves. Without the rapier in her other hand, she felt poorly armed, but she had been taught to use the knife left-handed. She would strike should the opportunity present itself, but not before.
Movement from the carriage reminded her that the driver was still with them. He had not left his seat and was enthralled by the combat before him. If Fleurette's plan was to succeed, there could be no witnesses. She tugged on his boot. "Go get help!" she cried.
The man looked at her as if she were mad since the nearest town was a good half day's walk away. "But Madame…"
She pulled harder. "Someone has to get help. You don't expect me to do it. Go on, get going. If my husband is murdered due to your inaction…"
That got him moving. He leapt from the carriage and trotted back down the road they had come. Fleurette sighed. There was only one last thing.
The duel continued and she could tell both men were tiring and bleeding from nicks they had given each other. Neither one bore any serious wounds. Finally, El Vago took advantage of the blood seeping from a wound in sword Louis' hand and circled Louis' rapier with his. The blood made the grip too slippery for Louis to hold and the weapon flew from his fingers and landed a few feet away. El Vago stepped forward and put the tip of his rapier at Louis' throat. "Are we done now, Senor?"
Fleurette knew El Vago would not kill Louis. It was not the vagabond's way, but she had come prepared to do the job herself. She had never killed anyone before but in order for her to serve the Castillians and Los Vagos the best, she needed to be rid of her husband and she doubted any of the servants would weep at his funeral.
Louis backed up, but El Vago moved with him so that the point of his rapier was never more than a few fingers' length from his throat. His back was to Fleurette. Her plan had been to wrap her arm around his neck and slit his throat. She had rehearsed this moment over and over to be certain she made no mistakes. She had seen what he had done to his people and experienced his cruelty herself. She was doing all of Theah a favour.
But as much as she hated him, she could not bring herself to kill him. She realized that all her plotting and planning meant nothing because she was not able to take his life.
Her failure distracted her and she didn't notice when he stepped toward her. She gasped in surprise as he grabbed her and used her to shield himself from El Vago's blade. "You might kill me, thief, but I know you will not kill my wife."
El Vago dropped the point of his weapon. "What kind of man shields himself with his wife?"
"A man who does not like to lose," Louis said.
He put his hand around Fleurette's throat. "Now leave or I will kill her."
"Louis?" she said meekly while trying to keep the dagger concealed.
El Vago was clearly unsure of what to do. "Senor, I can not believe you would kill your own wife just to spite me."
"I can always get another one," Louis said. "And blaming the crime on you would only encourage more people to hunt you down. You will be caught, Monsieur thief. Of that, I can assure you."
"Louis?" she said again.
"Quiet woman!" he spat. "Or I'll kill you anyway."
Fleurette met El Vago's eyes and glanced toward Louis' rapier at the vagabond's feet. He nodded ever so slightly. She slashed Louis' thigh with her dagger. He screamed and shoved her to the ground. "You little bitch!"
El Vago kicked Louis' sword to her. She snatched up the blade and rolled over as Louis lunged at her. He batted the rapier aside and wrapped his hands around her throat. She struggled to get her dagger into position. El Vago was desperately trying to pull him off her but Louis, though not a tall man, was strong and stocky and now very determined to kill her.
Finally, Fleurette got her dagger free and in her panic thrust at him blindly. The blade slid easily between his ribs and pierced his heart. He made a startled cry and collapsed on top of her, soaking her in his blood.
El Vago dragged the lifeless body off her. "Dona, are you all right?"
It took her a few moments to respond and she could not speak, she merely nodded.
He spat on the corpse. "What sort of man uses his wife as a shield and then tries to kill her? You have strange taste in husbands, Dona."
She nodded again, trying to find her voice. "Thank you," she finally managed to say.
He helped her to her feet. "When I got the message, I assumed I would simply be robbing the carriage. I had not meant to put you in such danger."
"It's my own fault," she said. "I… I was hoping to kill him, you see and blame it on you, but I… as much as I hate him, I couldn't do it and now that I have…"
She could feel tears starting as she lost the adrenaline of the moment. "I'm sorry."
El Vago brushed her tears away. "Theus does not want us to take the lives of others, Dona, no matter what we may think of them. Their judgement is in his hands."
He glanced down at the body. "But apparently, he decided in your favor this time. Don't cry, Dona. No one could fault you for what you had to do. I was about to do it myself. I certainly was not about to stand by and let him murder you in front of me. Legion has him now I think."
She removed Louis' rings and put them in his hand . She then took off the rest of her jewellery and tucked it in the pouch along with the information. "You will make sure those five Castillian families get fed, won't you?"
She could only see his eyes through the mask but he did not conceal his surprise. "This is very generous, Dona."
"The information I promised is also there. I hope it will be of use to you." He tucked the pouch into his belt. "I can not thank you enough for what you have done. Will you be all right by yourself here? I don't like the idea of you being here alone. We thought we had lost you with Henrique, I don't want to risk your safety again."
"Henrique and I were caught by Montaigne soldiers," she told him. "He convinced them that I was his prisoner since he knew they would not harm the daughter of a noble house. They had no such mercy for him. His death was not easy. He suffered horribly and I had to stand by helplessly while they tortured him."
She looked down at Louis' body. "I am finished watching, Don Vago. I am finished watching your people and mine suffer the rule of tyrants and those with no care for their welfare. As mistress of Louis' house, I now have the power and resources to provide you and yours with money and information. I want to help Castille and undermine L'Empereur. I know these are treasonous thoughts for one of my position, but what that man has done to your people and mine is unforgivable and I can't just sit by and watch any longer."
El Vago was silent for a moment and she could tell he was thinking. "What you ask is very dangerous for you, Dona. You know that we would protect you as best we can, but because of who and what you are, we are a bit limited in the aid we can offer you."
"I will protect myself," she assured him. "I have thought this out. I will outwardly continue my husband's threats and efforts to hunt you down. Who would believe that the grieving widow of a man brutally murdered at the hands of the Castillian vagabond would be one of his allies?"
He sighed. "I could not refuse your offer no matter what I personally may think of you putting your life in danger. You know that."
"I made the same vow you did, Don Vago. I have not forgotten."
He took her hand and brought it to the lips of the mask. "As much as I would hate to see a noose around that lovely neck or such beauty in the dungeons of the Inquisition, I am bound to do as you ask. Give me a token. I will send that with instructions so you will know from whom they come. We will do everything we can to keep your identity secret. I do not envy you this task you have taken up, Dona, but I respect your courage."
She unwound a red silk ribbon from her hair and gave it to him. "Thank you. Now you should go, in case that idiot coachman actually does find help. I have a husband to grieve for."
"Fare well, Dona. Theus protect you. I will not go far until I'm certain you are safe."
He mounted his horse and disappeared into the forest.
Fleurette wiped off her dagger and slipped it back in its sheath. She lay Louis' rapier beside him and took his head into her lap. She had taken the final step and there was no turning back.