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"The Faith? What's the Faith?" I asked.
Apparently I had spoken too loudly because Mercedes hushed me and drew us close. "Not here. We can't discuss them here. Just know that they're very dangerous, incredibly rich, and will kill you without a moment's hesitation." Her eyes darted about the room. "They could be anywhere, but especially here. The Faith thrives off of social events."
Jacob sighed. "My lady, I highly doubt such murderous rascals would be allow—"
"Not here," she hissed. "Get out of Rome. They know you're here. They might even know you're at this ball. Come to Riktenburg. We'll talk there. Our family shouldn't even be seen with you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" said the American hotly. They wouldn't listen.
"Until Riktenburg. Good evening." Marcellus reached into his frockcoat. A moment later, he replaced a pencil into the coat and pressed a small piece of paper into my palm. Then the family was gone.
We stared at each other in disbelief, completely baffled by the Klein's swift exit. Even Di Luca, too drunk to comprehend everything, seemed deflated. Logan still seemed dazed, while Jacob was flushed. I turned to the American.
"Rather a quick departure, hmm?"
"Not half as fast as rude. There we were, chatting along, and they're gone." He snapped his fingers for emphasis.
"Logan, are you alright? You seem a bit . . . distracted," I chided playfully.
My friend punched me in the arm. "Leave me be. You got to dance with her. She invited you to their chateau. Next, the two of you'll be—"
"Oh come off it. I don't fancy her, although she was beautiful. She's all yours, brother." His face remained clouded, and he didn't respond. Furthermore, Jacob was eyeing him. The American's face was gaunt and humorless. I let it go.
"Given their warning, what're we to do?" Each looked at me and shrugged, helplessly. I just sighed. "For starters, let's leave. I've lost my taste for merriment this evening."
"Agreed," said Logan.
"Now, hold on a minute! Lads! Lads! Why the rush?" Di Luca was spluttering, his drink spilling in agitation.
I patted his arm. "I think we're a bit unsettled by all this. To be honest, I don't feel like partying anymore."
"Well that's nothing another drink won't fix. You've only just arrived." His face curled in on itself; I laughed inwardly as I realized the man was sulking.
Jacob regarded him. "Another night perhaps. But, you enjoy yourself sir. If it's no inconvenience, we'll simply retire for the evening." Without waiting for another protest, we turned and began walking towards the exit. If we caused insult, the man would never remember it the next morning.
Our heels clicked along the corridor outside the great hall as we pushed our way through the throng. Masked faces continued to swirl about us in a maelstrom of color and hue. We lost ourselves in our thoughts. By the pensive droop of his eyes, Logan was contemplating the beauty which had only just left us. I was thinking about her words. Whatever it was, this group seemed quite singular. 'Faith' seemed to imply religiosity, but the determined, scarred faces of the men we'd seen thus far were far from clergymen. Besides, Mercedes had warned us of their ruthlessness. Given their pursuit, that seemed accurate. I was resolved to learn more about the group.
We exited the house and strolled along the gravel pathway towards the waiting carriages and the countryside beyond. The manor, like many homes of the rich, was situated some distance outside of Rome. That prevented the common riffraff from getting in their way, at least in theory. Shoes kicking up gravel, we arrived at the carriages and called our own over. I was looking forward to a nice, relaxing bath and a luxurious sleep in one of Di Luca's expansive beds.
Our valet assisted each of us into the vehicle, where we promptly collapsed onto the seats, worn out. As the carriage started away from the manor, Logan leaned forward. "What's the next course? Do we fly to Riktenburg and learn what the blazes is happening? Oh, and I was thinking. She conveniently forgot anything about directions. How will we find—"
I held up a piece of paper. "Actually, Marcellus slipped me this as he left. It's his brother's address. They live in Teimsfeld, wherever that is."
"It's the capital," said Jacob. I looked at him. "Marcellus mentioned that," he explained.
"The capital then. But it shouldn't be too hard to find. She's the niece of an ambassador."
"And the daughter of the minister of war," Logan piped in.
"'Et tu Brute?'" I laughed.
"Alexandra told me," he said.
Jacob broke in. "Regardless, we'll certainly be able to visit their household should we choose. The real question is if we want to. And if we do, is it to be right away or not?"
"We haven't seen these bastards since the train station, right? It's been about a week, and nothing's happened. Let's not rush all across Europe, at least not without cause. My guess is that they've either given up or have absolutely no idea where we are," said Logan.
"Do you recall when these same men were to have absolutely no way or motive for pursuing us once we'd arrived in Rome?" I asked dryly.
"That's different," he responded. "That only took a telegraph message, and given their inability to find us at the station, they don't have a very accurate description of us. They'll have given up by now."
"I don't know if I buy that argument, but we'll leave it for now. Whatever else they are, the Faith must be serious. I don't know if I've ever seen someone go as white as Alexandra when we mentioned those bowler hats."
"Did we just turn left?" asked Jacob suddenly.
"Yes, why?" said Logan.
"We're going the wrong way now, aren't we? We came from the other direction." His face was pressed to the window, peering out into the darkness.
"The driver knows his trade and these roads a lot better than we do. If we're going the wrong way, I'm sure it's just a quicker route this time of night," I said. The man sat back, nodding, but he didn't look convinced.
"And isn't a duel for honor supposed to be an honorable occasion?" exclaimed Logan. "I mean, it's nobody else's business if Fuchs and I tried to kill each other. He could just as easily have shot me down instead. These devils have been chasing us for weeks. It's downright ridiculous."
"Perhaps if you reason with them like that, it'll change their minds," I said laughing.
"You have a distinct knack for fun, Nathaniel."
"I try my best, especially when things turn grim. It keeps things a little less hopeless."
"Well it's making me irritated."
"Gentlemen, I really do think the driver's mad. We're getting further and further from the city," Jacob broke in again.
"Nonsense . . ." Logan started as he looked out the window. His words trailed off as he glimpsed the profound darkness around them. "Good heavens."
Jacob's eyes widened. "Did anyway even look at the valet driving us? Was he the same man as before?" Logan and I shrugged, and Jacob rapped the side of the carriage, signaling our chauffeur. Instead of slowing, the vehicle sped up.
"Oh, damnation!" Jacob tried the carriage door; of course it was locked. "Fancy another evening of adventure lads?" He had pulled a revolver from his waistcoat.
Logan stared at him incredulously. "You brought that to a formal ball?"
The American pulled out another one and tossed it to me. "I brought two," he said.
"Fine by me," I said, looking over the weapon. As Logan drew out his sword, which we'd all worn as part of the costumes, I continued. "And the plan is what, exactly?"
"I vote for simplicity. We shoot the lock, roll out of the carriage, and run through the darkness. They'll never find us out here," Logan spoke.
"Like they'd never find us in Rome?" Jacob asked, his eyebrows arched.
"We have no other options. And it's best to do it now, before we stop and exit into the waiting arms of a dozen rogues."
Without further hesitation, Jacob leaned over towards the door. He placed hi
s revolver against the lock, looked at us to gauge our readiness, and fired. The report echoed through the carriage, and the acrid stench of gunpowder settled around us. The next few moments were a blur of activity. Jacob leapt first, rolling through the dirt as the carriage suddenly slowed. Logan and I followed. I heard a distinct cry of pain as Logan hit the earth. There was no time to check on him, though, because around us, other forms were already whirling past in the darkness. More than one man fired a pistol. Friend or foe, I couldn't tell in the maelstrom of shadows.
I glimpsed two figures running towards a dilapidated building off the road. Their faces were just visible in the moonlight. I chased my friends, escaping the madness along the byway. As I sprinted, I took a moment to determine our surroundings. Ahead, the carriage had pulled to a stop. I glimpsed movement as the driver descended. Around me, I could hear the whinnying of horses; our attackers had come prepared. Panting, I reached the building, ducked inside, and was nearly impaled upon Logan's outstretched sword. Throwing myself under the blade, I swore.
"Sorry," he croaked.
Rising, I drew out my own blade and looked about once more. Jacob was crouched at a window, peering out into the night. With curiosity, I realized we were in a church. The ceiling had collapsed long ago, and the floor was devoid of pews or any other religious trappings. Yet, an aged cross loomed down on us from the wall, and the place's architecture was distinctly clerical. Spots of moonlight drifted through the open ceiling, casting a haunting, ethereal mood over the entire place.
Jacob waved us over. We dashed to him. "As far as I can make out, there are at least five of them: four on horseback and the driver. Three to five odds aren't as bad as they might be," whispered Jacob.
Logan looked behind us, glaring towards the entrance. "Yes, but we've no idea where we are, and there could be a dozen entrances to this chapel. We're trapped."
"Then why aren't they attacking?" I asked.
"Circling around to kill us from the back, no doubt," said Logan.
Jacob pointed. "Nathaniel, stand by that column; if they come in through that door, you know what to do. Logan, I want you over there." He pointed towards the back of the church. Gaping holes remained where stained glass had once watched over the faithful. Without questioning our friend's orders, Logan and I hurried to our positions. Jacob continued to stare into the night, his hand clutching his weapons.
Crouching in the dust behind the column, a bead of sweat dripped down my neck. I snatched my mask down and threw it away. No sense in dying with a bulbous beak on my forehead. The pistol felt warm in my palm. The sword was light in my other. Of course, being a ceremonial blade, it wouldn't last long against anything designed for real fighting, but the weapon was reassuring nonetheless.
"Nathaniel Fletcher!" A throaty voice cut through the night. I glanced over at Logan. Like the men accompanying Fuchs to the duel, I noticed this speaker's German accent. For his part, Logan was straining to hear through the gloom. "Fletcher!" the voice repeated.
Jacob pointed towards me, then indicated the entrance; what better time for an ambush than when attempting to parlay.
"I have a proposition for you, lad," said the voice, closer this time.
"We'll kill every last one of you bastards if you come nearer!" cried Jacob.
"Ah, yes. And the American. I'd nearly forgotten about you. Douglas, you're included in this as well. You've all given more resistance than we're used to. I wouldn't wonder if you actually think you can beat us yet. You can't. And it's better to not even try. Our friends can provide a most painful death to people like you. Instead, I'd like to offer a deal, as it were."
I met Logan's eye. He had not been addressed yet. I shook my head slowly in the inky blackness. The speaker went on. "The two of you have a third man in there don't you? Viscount Logan Harling to be precise. He killed someone very dear to us. This is where you come in, Douglas and Fletcher. If you simply hand—"
Just then, a cry of agony resounded through the church, and I whirled about. A man, dressed all in black, was struggling with Logan — who clutched a bleeding arm. The assailant had apparently rushed through the entrance only to stumble into my friend. Unfortunately for Logan, the man's instinct had been to drive a short dagger into my companion's arm. I acted in an instant. Cocking Jacob's revolver, I leveled it against my other arm as Logan threw himself back from his attacker, hoping to gain enough room for his sword. The move gave me the opportunity I sought. I pulled the trigger. The rogue dropped, his blood seeping into the grooves of the holy stones around us. Cocking my pistol once more, I waited for any other assaults; none were forthcoming.
Logan waved me back to my place by the column, nursing his arm. In spite of his scream, the wound wasn't as bad as we originally thought, or so he mimed in the gloom. Jacob motioned for us all to keep our places. Next, he cupped a hand to his mouth and shouted into the night. "You'd think, out of anyone, a group called the Faith would have the decency to respect the holy nature of God's church."
"'Thou shall not murder' either, but we tend to compromise that one as well when His will supersedes His commands" came the impertinent reply.
"There will be no deals. Friends don't throw each other to the wolves, whatever the benefits. Come at us, and we'll skewer the rest of you curs too." Jacob spat for emphasis.
"And how exactly did you learn our name, anyway?" our enemy shouted.
"Not difficult given your propensity to stick your noses in others' business," threw back Logan.
"There's no reason to be hostile; it's no matter really. It's not like you'll be sharing that information with anyone soon, anyway. Just curiosity, my good man," the bastard called again.
Jacob crawled over to me. "They know we can't wait here forever. I saw at least five men earlier. With the stiff over there, that's four now. Do we rush them?"
I nodded. "The longer we wait, the more chances they have for ambushing us. I vote we charge while you cover us from that window," I said. I pointed towards his previous position, and the American smiled in agreement. He crept over to Logan. I assumed he repeated the plan, because Logan nodded, a wolfish grin spreading across his face. After stripping another revolver off our dead enemy, Jacob shuffled back towards his window. Outside, we heard muted conversation; others were planning their strategy as well. Inside, Logan and I gave a nod towards our friend, and we slipped back into the night, our weapons drawn.
We separated. I slunk around one side of the chapel. Logan moved along the other. Each counting towards an agreed-upon number, we would rush them together. I reached the edge of the chapel's wall. I paused, counting down the last seconds. With a frightful roar, I leapt up from my position and ran into the clear.
The carriage was parked where it had come to a halt. A misty dust from the gravel was still settling amid the moonlight as I finally glimpsed them. Shock registered briefly on their faces. True to Jacob's count, three men waited in the stirrups of chargers, and the valet stood among them, strategizing. Hearing my cry and spotting my form, they lost no time. Two horsemen spurred their mounts towards me, but one was instantly thrown from the saddle, a pistol crack sounding nearby. Jacob, it seemed, was paying attention.
As a lone rider bore down on me, I had just enough time to register another cry. Logan had broken cover and sprinted to join the melee. All other thoughts were cut off then as I sidestepped the angry horse thundering beside me. Bringing my sword up, I parried the thrust from the man. The ceremonial blade I held reverberated with the blow. It wouldn't take many more to shear the flimsy thing. Anguished cries behind me filled the night, but I paid them no heed.
My opponent was a skilled rider. It took him no time at all to spin his horse around for another pass. Shouting wordlessly, I raised my revolver and shot several times, too excited to aim properly. The weapon was clutched in my off hand, a fact which didn't aid the process. The bullets went wide, and the horse was upon me once more. Feeling sickened by the waste, I eluded the man's swing an
d slashed the legs of the passing mount. Of course, it buckled. The rider had the presence of mind to throw himself from the saddle. He hit the ground hard and rolled. Climbing to his feet at last, he turned.
"Rather cheap move. I'd expect that from a peasant." He sneered.
"Rather cheap horse. I'd expect that from a scoundrel."
Without another word, the man came at me. Clutching my flimsy sword, I lunged, countering his charge. He avoided that, swinging his own blade to deflect mine. It'd been months since I'd practiced at fencing, and the neglect showed. In contrast, my man was quick, agile. It was all I could do not to stumble over myself at his fury. At one point, our blades became locked together, each man struggling to overpower the other. In a fit of rage and quick thinking, I brought my pistol up and cocked it. A look of pure dread filled his face as I pulled the trigger, point-blank. Nothing happened. Cursing, I tried again. The chambers were obviously empty. He beamed up at me. That smile disappeared just before I struck him hard in the face with the gun, knocking him back and to his knees.
He never rose.
Letting his own fall and my momentum carry me forward, I stabbed him. The blade, although fragile and made for show, was distinctly pointed, and the weapon sliced through him with ease. I fell to the ground next to the bleeding corpse.
Elsewhere, things were not as successful. Logan rolled through the dirt, wrestling the valet. Above him, the other man had dismounted, his sword waiting for the slightest opportunity. Just then, however, Jacob rushed from the chapel, his pistols splitting the night air. But as I rose from the ground, my legs straining, silence enveloped us.
When I reached them, my friends were staring down at the valet, a knife imbedded in his throat. The rider lay nearby, clutching at several gunshot wounds, his movements growing slower by the second. With a last gurgle, he collapsed.
We waited, eerily quiet. Finally, Jacob pointed towards the driver. "Grim work."
"It was his own knife," said Logan. His face was flushed, and blood dripped down his body in several places. "He jumped me while I tried to get the other rider. Thanks for the help." Jacob nodded in acknowledgement. They turned to me.
I shrugged. "It wasn't too bad once I got him off the horse." But all the time, my eyes kept moving to the corpse I had made. I'd killed two men, and the thought troubled me. I wanted to speak, to apologize, or retch — I didn't know which. But I didn't have time for any of those.
Logan wiped the blood from his mouth, his chest heaving. "We leave tonight. To Riktenburg, Paris, or wherever. I don't care as long as we learn who the hell they are, what they're playing at, and how we stop the bastards!"
Then he turned and limped off towards the carriage without another word, blood dripping onto the gravel after him.
Back to The Faith: Book I of the Uprising Trilogy book
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