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«Prince of Darkness», Paul Doherty

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Chapter 1

A heavy river mist, boiled in the heat of the day, had rolled in from the Seine making the night more dreadful, shrouding the buildings and palaces of Paris in its grey, wraith-like tendrils. The curfew had sounded, the streets and alleyways were now silent except for scavenging cats and the dregs of the Paris underworld snouting like rats for easy prey. Eudo Tailler, ostensibly a wine merchant from Bordeaux in Gascony, in fact an agent of Edward I of England and his master spy, Hugh Corbett, slipped quietly along an alleyway, dagger half-drawn as he edged towards the dark, decaying house which stood on the corner.

It had been a glorious summer day, the weather proving the prophets of doom wrong, those Jeremiahs who had proclaimed that the first year of the new century would see fire from heaven and blood spurting up to stain the sky. Nothing had happened. Eudo had arrived in Paris at mid-summer 1300 and found little amiss. Of course, his masters in England thought there was; Philip IV, King of France, they insisted, was secretly plotting to seize the English Duchy of Gascony by fair means or foul. The French King's master spy, Seigneur Amaury de Craon, was already in England, poking about in the dark comers of the English court, looking for juicy morsels of scandal.

Eudo suddenly stepped into a darkened doorway as the night watch, four soldiers carrying spears and lanterns, marched past the mouth of the alleyway. The spy leaned against the door. Oh, there was scandal enough in England, he thought, and most of it centred round the Prince of Wales and his former mistress, Lady Eleanor Belmont, who had been locked up in Godstowe Priory. Yet a bad situation had grown worse because the young prince had recently found the real love of his life – not the daughter of some nobleman but a man: the young Gascon catamite, Piers Gaveston. De Craon would use that, Eudo reflected, to fan the sparks of gossip into a fiery scandal In order to seize Gascony, the French would destroy the prince's reputation and, if that failed, like the hypocrites they were insist that the heir to the English throne be betrothed to the French King's daughter, Isabella, in accordance with a peace treaty forced on England some years earlier.

Oh, the French had been cunning! Either way King Edward of England was trapped. No wonder Eudo's master, Hugh Corbett, senior clerk in the English Chancery, had sent him a stream of instructions begging him to find out the secret counsels of the French. Eudo smiled. He had been successful and surely he would reap his well-deserved reward? First, he had found there was an assassin in England, a member of the accursed de Montfort family, stalking the King and plotting his death. Eudo had sent this information directly to King Edward some months earlier but nothing had come of it so he had mentioned it again in his most recent despatch to Corbett.

He lifted his hand and wiped the sweat from his brow. He had done what had been asked, it was up to the King and Corbett how they used the information he sent. Yet he had learnt more: the French were not only plotting mischief around the Prince of Wales' former mistress, the Lady Eleanor Belmont, they even had a spy at Godstowe where the woman had been immured…

Eudo heard the footfalls of the night watch fade away. He adjusted his cloak, grasped the dagger and continued on his way.

The leprous beggar was crouched as usual in the corner of the alleyway opposite the house.

'Is everything all right?' Eudo whispered.

He could barely make out the huddled outline of the beggar, shrouded in his robe, but he saw the silvery head nod gently and the skeletal hand thrust out for its usual payment. Eudo swallowed, hid his distaste, threw a coin at the man and padded towards the door of the house. As arranged, it was unlocked. He lifted the latch, slipped quietly in and looked around. The flagstoned passageway was dark and empty. A candle flickered weakly in its brass holder fixed high in the wall, affording some light as he climbed the rickety wooden staircase. Eudo was pleased. How fortunate he had been to find Mistress Celeste, a plump young doxy, rosy-cheeked and fresh from the Norman countryside. Eudo had used her charms to bait and trap one of Philip's clerks from the Royal Chancery at the Louvre Palace: the wench proved to be intelligent, sweetly protesting her innocence, promising all sorts of delights as she wheedled one secret after another from the gullible French clerk.

Eudo reached the top of the stairs and gently pushed open the chamber door. The room was dark and he tensed. Something was wrong. Surely Celeste would leave a candle burning? He stood like a dog, sniffing the darkness, his eyes strained against the gloom. He caught the heavy fragrance of Celeste's perfume and made out the sleeping form of the young prostitute on her pallet bed underneath the small, half-open window. Eudo relaxed and grinned. Perhaps the girl was tired after a busy night? Perhaps he could savour some of the joys the young French clerk had experienced?

'Celeste!' he whispered. 'Celeste, it is me, Eudo!'

Silence greeted his words.

'Is there anything wrong?' he asked softly.

Alarmed now, he paused, ears straining for a sound.

He heard the house creak and groan but it was old and the beggar on the corner would surely have alerted him to any approach. Eudo drew his dagger and walked over to the bed.

'Celeste!' he hissed, and gave the girl a vigorous shake.

Her body flopped over and Eudo opened his mouth in a silent scream. Celeste's throat had been slashed from ear to ear and the viscous red blood soaked the bodice of her dress and coagulated in dark pools on the blanket. Eudo felt something warm and sticky on his fingers. Breathing deeply, he stepped back, loosening his cloak as his hand went to his long dagger. He took another step back, then another, turned and dashed for the door. A shadowy figure loomed up but Eudo sank to one knee even as his dagger hissed out, slitting the man's belly. He sprang up and pushed the man aside, clattering down the stairs. Another figure was waiting for him, hooded and menacing. Eudo did not stop but jumped the final few stairs and crashed into his assailant, sending him flying against the hard wall. Eudo was then through, out into the dark, fetid alleyway. He glared across at the beggar.

'You bastard!' he screamed. 'You lying bastard!'

The wretch retreated deeper into his corner. Eudo scrabbled at the ground, picked up a loose cobblestone and sent it crashing into the beggar's skull, knocking him backwards into a moaning, huddled heap. Eudo turned the corner of the alleyway, running down towards the crossroads. He sobbed and groaned as his chest heaved for air and his heart beat like a drum. He knew it was all futile. So far he had been lucky, but where could he go?

He saw a line of men-at-arms suddenly appear at the far side of the square. Eudo stopped and screamed defiance. He would not be taken alive. He was still screaming abuse when the crossbow bolt hit him full in the thigh and sent him crashing to the cobbles, mourning curses and groans. He grasped the quarrel embedded deep in his flesh and moaned at the sheer agony of it. No rewards now, no journey back to Bordeaux! No more cups of wine! He heard the thud of boots on the cobbled square and felt a mailed foot against his shoulder, pushing him over to sprawl flat on his back. The captain of the French guard took off his helmet and knelt down beside him.


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