Chaos, the screams of women and children floundering desperately in the water. An absurdly tall nun with a rifle slung over her back as she tried to save a gaggle of schoolgirls. Brutal French soldiers closing in....
“Is he dead?”
Hard fingers pressed into Will’s throat. He tried to shake them off, and was rewarded with stabbing agony in his head. The pain cleared his wits a little and he realized that someone was checking his pulse.
“Not yet,” a vaguely familiar voice responded. The fingers disappeared. “Bashed on the head. Not sure how serious it is. I recognize him, though. The name’s Masterson.”
“Let him sleep,” another voice said gruffly. “If he’s not awake, he won’t want a share of this deplorable brandy.”
Thinking he had a fierce-enough headache without drinking bad brandy, Will opened his eyes to find that he was in a damp, dark place, a cellar maybe, with cluttered racks covering most of the stone walls. A lantern hanging from a ceiling beam cast enough light to show the face of the man leaning over him. Tangled blond hair and a scruffy beard several shades darker. Shabbily dressed, but alert, wary eyes.
Will squinted at him. “I know you, don’t I?”
“The name’s Gordon. We went to the same school long, long ago. How is your head? You took quite a blow.”
Will touched his aching temple, wincing at the pain. There was sticky blood, too. But his brain seemed to be working. He now recognized Gordon, though that wasn’t the name the fellow had used when they were students at the Westerfield Academy. Given his bad behavior then, it wasn’t surprising if he’d decided to change identities.
“Where am I?” Will’s voice was rusty.
Gordon sat back on his heels. “Vila Nova de Gaia, in the cellar of a house overlooking the Douro River,” he replied. “Do you remember the bridge of boats? People drowning as they tried to escape from Porto to Gaia and the improvised bridge breaking up under them?” His voice turned dry. “You were very heroic. Led the charge to rescue a group of nuns and schoolgirls from being raped and possibly murdered.”
The tall nun. Frantic, wide-eyed girls. Remembering now, Will asked, “Did they escape?”
“Yes, at least for the moment.” The reply came from a dark-haired, hard-featured man who leaned wearily against the opposite wall, his arms crossed over his chest. “No idea what happened once they were out of sight.”
Hoping that at least one group of innocents had managed to survive the carnage, Will shakily tried to push himself up. Wordlessly Gordon helped him sit against the damp stone wall. Every inch of Will’s body ached, but he didn’t seem to have any major injuries.
No uniform. He was dressed like a Portuguese man of modest means. Since he was fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, and French and he’d spent time in Porto, his commanding officer had sent him to learn what was going on in the city. Nothing good, he’d discovered.
He surveyed the shadowy room, which contained three men besides himself and Gordon. All looked as battered as he was.
Gordon made a courtly gesture. “Allow me to introduce our fellow English spies. That’s Chantry against the wall, Hawkins swigging from the bottle of brandy, and Duval to the left.”
“I dislike being grouped with you English spies,” Duval said in a languid voice with a faint accent. “I’m a French royalist.”
“But a spy?” Will asked.
“I might be considered that by narrow-minded French officers,” the Frenchman admitted. “In truth, I’m merely an irredeemable rogue.”
“Irredeemable? This is a good time to talk about redemption,” Hawkins said thoughtfully. He was the man with the gruff voice whose shaggy brown hair half obscured his face. “If we weren’t going to die in the morning, would we attempt to make up for our past sins? Or shrug and return to them?”
Gordon frowned. “I think I’d try to be better. I’ve always assumed that there would be time to become an honorable man. I didn’t expect to run out of time so soon.” He took the brandy bottle from Hawkins and swallowed deeply, then passed it to Will.
“I don’t know how to be good,” Chantry said, his voice edged. “I’ll go to hell no matter when I die. Which is going to be in a few hours.”
Will wondered if he’d misheard. “What’s this about dying?”
“We’re all to be shot at dawn,” Duval explained. “So say your prayers and hope that le bon Dieu is in a merciful mood.” His mouth twisted. “I expect no such mercy. But given the chill of this cellar, roasting in hell is not without appeal.”
Will tasted the brandy warily. Wretched indeed, but he welcomed the throat-scorching kick as he tried to absorb the knowledge that he was about to die in front of a firing squad. He’d faced death in battle often enough, but the cold-bloodedness of an execution was . . . disturbing.
After a second swallow of brandy, he handed the bottle back to Gordon. “There’s no way out of this cellar?”
“We searched. At the least, we hoped to find more drink on one of the racks, but there was nothing useful, and the only way out is that door.” Hawkins gestured. “That very heavy door, which is locked and barred from the other side.”
“There are also two armed guards out there,” Duval added. “Not such bad fellows. They gave us two bottles of brandy because they thought a man shouldn’t go to his death sober.” He smiled crookedly and reached for the bottle. “They apologized for the quality of the brandy, but, in truth, I no longer care. We finished the first bottle while you were unconscious, so we’re all ahead of you in drunkenness.”
“‘In vino veritas,’” Hawkins murmured. “As I look at the rapidly diminishing moments of my life, I think of all the people I hurt being careless or selfish.” He retrieved the brandy from Duval and took a swig. “If by some miracle I survive this sentence of death, I vow to do better. To pay more attention. To . . . to be more kind.”
“That’s a good vow.” Gordon frowned. “If I survive, I swear not to sleep with any more married women. They’re nothing but trouble.”
That produced a couple of chuckles. “If you’re not going to sleep with married women, you might as well be dead,” Chantry pronounced. After a few moments’ thought, he continued, saying slowly, “But if I chance to survive, I vow to take up the responsibilities I’ve been avoiding. A safe promise that allows me to greet the firing squad gladly.”