Being late at night, Saturday, the Feast Day of Saint Valentine, Anno Domini One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Six, in the depths of the Forest of Averoigne…
“Brother?!” Julien exclaims, swinging himself behind the pillar. “Surely thou dost not mean the wolf lurking by thy house is kin?”
He ducks his head out of the way as Orianne slashes at the pillar. Sparks fly as steel strikes stone. “Nay, sir, but the innkeeper thou didst stab in Paris was. Hast thou forgotten? Perhaps I shalt sharpen thy memory!”
Sounds of crashing and the breaking of branches come from the woods. Marcel and Bruyant dash out, drawing up short at the sight of the woman.
Bruyant’s breath frosts in the air as he takes in the situation. “Milady! I beg thee, put down thy weapon!”
“’Tis too late for that, priest!” the lady cries out, whirling on the newcomers.
Marcel hefts his staff and steps to one side. “Orianne! Please do not do anything rash!”
The woman smirks, walking backward so she can view both clerk and friar, their weapons raised. “Rash? My dear friar, I have been planning this for months!”
Her back is now to the priest. Rushing forward, Bruyant seizes her sword arm. She howls and attempts to twist free, but Bruyant’s grasp holds. Julien and Marcel attempt to move closer, but the struggling figures pirouette, and they are forced to leap aside from the deadly blade. Marcel’s foot hits a rock, and he stumbles, dropping his staff.
Pierre arrives in the clearing, panting.
“Please help, Pierre!” cries Bruyant, as he tugs at Orianne’s arm. “I am out of my element!”
Pierre sighs, lowers his head, and charges into the fray.
A few moments later, Bruyant, Pierre, and Julien overbear the maiden. Pierre wrenches the sword away from her fingers. Marcel, having regained his staff, places its end at her throat. She goes limp and sobs.
The priest sits on a low wall and sighs. “Somehow, I feel as if I should apologize, though it hardly seems appropriate.”
Julien stares at the woman on the ground, her locks disheveled, her eyes brimming with tears. “Milady… I know not what to say at this moment. I can understand thy anger against me, but what grudge hadst thou against the guardsman and the winetaster?”
She shakes her head. “None, sir, none. ‘Twas part of a bargain, an unholy pact that became more diabolic the longer it continued. By the time I realized its scope and depravity, I was already a party to murder.”
Marcel kneels. “Then, milady, who is the cloaked and hooded man?”
“I know not his name, but he dwellest in mine abode. I can take thee to him.”
Pierre does not loosen his grip. “And the beast? What part hath you to play in that matter?”
“None, sir.” She lays back on the ground and sighs. “I wish this to be over. Let us leave this wood, that this nightmare might end.”
Bruyant stares about. “How shall we find the way back? I fear we shall wander in this forest for some time…”
“Nay,” gasps Orianne. “By all that is holy, gentlemen, the gates of Vyones are not ten minutes from that pillar.”
The companions exchange glances.
“Can we trust her?” asks Julien.
“I am still cold,” says Pierre, pulling the lady to her feet. “Let us take reasonable precautions and be on our way.”
Ten minutes later…
“At least she was truthful regarding one matter,” says Marcel, as they come within sight of the walls. Orianne remains silent, head bowed.
“I am most glad to be clear of that accursed forest and its ridiculous tests,” mutters Julien, nursing his arm in a sling the friar had hastily prepared. “Father Bruyant and I risk our lives, Pierre is offered a life of carefree debauchery, and Marcel must ask a mysterious man a question?”
Marcel looks defensive. “’Twas no easy matter…”
“Hist, gentlemen!” says Pierre. “Ahead… The alarum goes up!”
The four men and their prisoner run for the gates. Ahead they can hear cries, the ringing of church bells, and the sound of hooves. The guards move forward instinctively, then step back as they recognize the companions. Marcel accosts the captain, who has just finished a hurried discussion with a messenger on horseback. “What has happened, sir?”
“Murder most foul at the palace!” the man shouts. “Obert, the notary, has been slain! The inquisitor has vanished!”
A cry goes up nearby. “The beast has come! Come to punish us for our sins!”
Julien joins the friar. “What of the archbishop? Is he safe?”
“Aye, sir. And well guarded, I am told.”
“We must attend to him immediately!” Pierre moves toward the hill, but Bruyant grabs his arm.
“I dearly love the archbishop, sir, but we have another quarry as well. Indeed, our poisoner might take the chance to escape in this hubbub.” He looks at the other companions. “Where doth our duty lie?”