So said Baul who, lantern in hand, rifled through the goodie bag Clement deVernay's servant packed. "Look at all this food! Cheese, bread – fresh at that! Fine wine, sweets, fruit, candied nuts..."
Andreu and Marco just laughed at their ever-hungry companion as they hoisted the tent then spread plush woolen blankets over the grass. It was a lovely summer night, just the right amount of coolness to the air. The sky was so amazingly clear, the moon full, and the stars too numerous to count.
Grabbing a hunk of bread and cheese, Andreu laid back and counted his good fortune. His only wish was that his mother was here. She, Anis, would be so proud of her son once she sees all the money he made. And to think she warned him of Parisians indifference. Pooh! People have been so nice to us, he thought, as he took a healthy swig of wine. Esmeralda and Phoebus introduced us to many fine folks. We met the King and performed for the Comte deVernay. How luckier can one get than that?
"Say, Andreu," said Marco, stuffing his face with sweets, "what are you going to do with all that money? You know the comte said to spend it wisely."
"And I will. Well, I'll spend some of it here, maybe buy us a nice round of drinks at Victor's tavern. I think I'll give most of it to my mother then save the rest. I may be married soon, so I'll need a nice sum to support a wife."
Baul almost choked on his ale. "You? Married? To who?"
Andreu blushed but said, "You know that daughter of Mander, the one who handles the horses for Minister Ouimet's brother? Her name is Patia, and Mama believes her father wants us married."
Marco nodded. "She is a nice girl. Good dancer, and her skill with needle and thread is unmatched. Patia would make a fine wife."
The boys talked and feasted well into the night, oblivious to their surroundings. Oh, there was nothing of which to be afraid. Clement's personal guards patrolled the house and grounds all through the night. There were no wild, dangerous animals around, so the boys could sleep in comfort and safety.
After so much food and libation, the youths soon drifted off to sleep, each dreaming of a better future for themselves and their people.
They didn't see it coming and neither did the guards. Somehow, three men stole their way onto Chateau deVernay then made their way into the wood. In the dim light of a sole lantern, the men searched the wood, finding their quarry camping out in the glade. The dying embers and wisping smoke from a spent campfire gave away the boys' location.
No time to scream or call for help. No time to scramble out of a tight, dangerous situation. Not even time to fight off the invaders. It all happened much too fast.
One grabbed Marco and shook the boy out of a sound slumber. Into his ear, the man hissed, "Which one is Andreu? Speak, boy! Or I'll cut your throat!"
Marco shuddered as he forced himself awake, thinking this was all one bad dream. He didn't say a thing, and he couldn't tell who this man was; that villain had a mask over his face, so did the other. "Won't talk, eh? Perhaps I can beat it out of you!"
"No, sir...I don't want trouble." Marco reached into his bag, saying, "Here, we have money. Take it all, if that's what you want."
The man threw down the bag in disgust, replying, "We don't want your filthy Gypsy money! We just want the boy!"
The commotion stirred the other boys with Baul saying, "What's up, Marco? What's happening?"
"These men want Andreu, but I don't know for what."
Andreu, now finally awake, sized up the situation. Apparently these men – at least one of them – must be were the ones Phoebus escorted off the property during the wedding festivities. Now what was that man's name?
Andreu couldn't recall right away, but he knew something had to be done. These ruffians were threatening his friends. He still pretended to be asleep but deftly reached under his blanket to fetch his knife. If he timed it right, he could hold off the men while Baul and Marco run for help. Surely Clement's guards aren't too far away; they just patrolled this part of the wood an hour ago. They could be back any time, then these men will pay dearly for intruding on the comte's estate.
"Come on, tell us! Where is the one called Andreu?" The second man had Marco by the neck, locking him in a sound chokehold. The man twisted the boy's neck, threatening to snap it in two. "I will break your neck if you don't tell me!"
"I...I don't know who you're talking about," said Marco, he who prided himself on telling good lies. Well, now was the time for lies, for he was sure these men meant Andreu harm.
"Get away from my friend!," said Baul furiously, hurling himself at the man holding Marco. "Go away! You're trespassing anyway!"
The second man sneered, "Oh yes? Aren't you trespassing? On the good comte's property? That's right...We could say we happened upon a trio of Gypsy squatters on this estate. The comte will reward us handsomely for apprehending trespassers."
"Says you!," retorted Baul. "The Comte deVernay gave us his permission! So there! You can't do anything to us!"
Suddenly, the man who held Marco felt a dull thud to the back of the head. Dazed momentarily, the man reeled then slumped over, releasing his prisoner.
"Go, Marco! Run! Find one of the guards!"
Marco, breaking free, ran as fast as he could, not bothering to look back. Without light, he could not see were he was going; he nearly tripped several times. All the while he kept telling himself Andreu and Baul have things in hand. Both boys are handy with a knife, so perhaps they were able to ward off those men.
If only I can flag down a guard, better yet, make it to the house. I can rouse a servant, the steward, maybe the comte himself. We're in trouble, but I don't know why those men want Andreu.
At last Marco could see the faint candlelight in the upper story window of the chateau. He could also spot two guards still on patrol. In an instant, he yelled, "Help! Help us, please! Two men are threatening us! Help!"
The guards turned around, replying, "Is that you, young Marco? What's happening?"
The guards, swords drawn, met up with Marco then the trio ran to the scene. They were too late.
"They took him, Marco!," said a tearful, bleeding Baul. "We tried to fight them off, but the big one was too strong for us. He hit me in the back of the head. Then they hit Andreu so many times. That's when they took him. I don't know, but I'm afraid they might kill him!"
The first guard asked, "Did you get a good look at the men?"
Baul, holding his bleeding head as the second guard mopped up the blood, replied, "No, they had masks on, but they talked a lot. One of the men said, 'Come on, Isore, beat up the little one then grab the other boy.' Then the one called Isore hit me on the head. I don't know what happened to Andreu. They beat him up, too. We tried to fight them off, but they were stronger than us. They left me lying on the ground then took Andreu away."
Marco couldn't quite comprehend his friend's words. He said, "Sir, they woke up Baul first and asked which one of us is Andreu. I didn't know why they wanted him. We did nothing to offend these men..." He began to cry, a trait that he abhorred for he always considered himself the more mature of the trio. He couldn't fathom why Andreu was a target of these men's hatred. Then he remembered something: the identity of the other man.
"They talked much. The one named Isore called the other Othan."
The first guard then said to the boys, "Here, I'll take the pair of you to the house. You, Baul, need Marie to look at that bleeding head. Then his lordship must be alerted of trespassers." To the second guard, he said, "Jacques, round up the other guards. Search the grounds and surrounding vicinity. If you see anything or anyone suspicious, then apprehend them with all deliberate speed. Minister Ouimet will need to be notified as well."
"And Esmeralda," said Marco. "She will be devastated once she learns Andreu is missing. She promised his mother she'd look after him." That said, Marco silently wept, his tears coursing down tawny cheeks.
"Not to worry," said the first guard as he got out his horn to alert the others on duty. "They are foot, you said, with only one lantern. It is dark, and these woods are thick. Even if they make it to the gate, they will have to get over that wall." He thought some, then added, "How did they get over that wall? They would need a ladder or, at least, someone on the inside to help them over."
Alarmed, he sounded the alert on the horn, a loud, ear-piercing blast that could be heard for miles around, even beyond the boundaries of Chateau deVernay.
"Poor dear...Now, hold still while I clean this up. It is a miracle you weren't hurt any worse. It's a bit of a nasty cut, but I don't think there's any damage."
So said Marie, the housekeeper as she applied a soothing botanical balm to Baul's cut forehead. The boy sustained a nasty-looking, but not life-threatening, wound, obviously inflicted by Isore's dagger.
"I ducked as he lunged at me," said Baul, accepting a cup of steaming soup from Abelard, the steward, as Marie bandaged his head.
"Well," said a smiling Marie, a tawny-haired, rotund woman of about forty-five, "it's a good thing you're young and agile. Too bad about your friend, the funny one. But don't worry. Between his lordship's guards and Minister Ouimet's men, your friend will be rescued, and those villains captured. Imagine! Trespassers on the property! No doubt his lordship will want them prosecuted for that offense."
"And," said Abelard, who heard resounding footsteps from above, "they've assaulted these fine boys and kidnapped their friend." He turned to Baul, asking, "You said one man's name was Isore, and the other's Othan." Abelard stroked his fine gray beard then snapped his fingers. "That's them! Othan is brother to Grazide Roche."
"The same whose husband owns Maison Josèphine?"
"The same, and I learned her brother was here today during the wedding celebration. Didn't you see it, Marie? Captain Phoebus escorted the man to the gate. Seems His Majesty and his lordship did not want Othan's presence and ordered him back to Paris."
"Well, can you blame them? Othan and Isore are the worse of their lot. Uncouth, barbaric monsters. Think they're above the law, those two. Well, once His Grace has them in his clutches..."
Marie stopped in mid-sentence and snapped to attention the moment Clement deVernay appeared in the servants quarters. Abelard did likewise. Making a quick but dignified curtsey, Marie asked, "What is your will, m'lord?"
"I heard the captain's alert. What's happening?"
A worried Clement took one look at a wounded Baul then demanded details. Marco, who had been strangely silent, and understandingly so – his best friend had been kidnapped, perhaps dead by now – began recounting the moments leading up to Andreu's disappearance. Upon learning the identity of the likely suspects, Clement exploded.
"I knew I shouldn't have hired the Roches. That Grazide and her brother are the most insufferable people. Tell me, Marco, did you or your friends have any dealings with the Roches prior to the wedding?"
Marco shook his head, saying, "I...We don't know those people, sir. The only people we've met since coming to Paris have been the bell ringer and the Captain Phoebus."
"We met Victor, the tavernkeeper," offered Baul who began to feel a little better thanks to the soothing balm applied to his wound.
"Anyone else?," asked Clement, "Anyone who might have mistook your performances as an insult?"
"No, sir," replied Marco, "Everyone loved it when we performed, that is except Madame Roche. She frowned the whole time. But we did go to her shop before leaving for the wedding. We bought sweets then left."
"No, Marco," clarified Baul, "we – you and I – left the shop together. You remember? That man who came into the shop looking for the bell ringer. He needed Quasimodo to help move his wagon, and we went to help. Andreu stayed behind to pay for our sweets, then he came out shortly."
Shaking his head, Clement deVernay asked his housekeeper, "Did you happen to overhear any of Madame Roche and her brother's conversation? I know you and the rest of the staff were busy, but there is an outside chance you heard a snatch of conversation."
Marie shook her head, replying, "No, m'lord. I heard nothing. The only time I saw Madame Roche's brother was when Captain Phoebus ordered him off the property."
"No, Marie," said Abelard, "those two were in deep conversation but stopped once Monsieur Roche came within earshot. Milord, Hugues, the stableboy, said he overheard Madame Roche tell Othan to 'teach the Gypsy upstart a lesson'. Hugues assumed Madame Roche was talking about Clopin, the Gypsy king. But perhaps they meant one of the boys. It is a possibility."
Now Clement wondered if Grazide and Othan plotted to have the boys harmed, perhaps killed, because of a petty, childish prank. He had to ask, "Baul, did Andreu tell you what he said to Madame Roche? He had to say something to her, something that offended her, or else she would not have made such threats."
Baul, his head beginning to throb a bit, said with some difficulty, "No, sir. When he came out of the shop, he handed us our sweets, then we went back to Esmeralda's house to prepare for departure."
Clement deVernay, his face the very picture of concern, said to Abelard, "When the comtesse awakes, do not alarm her. Have a morning tray sent up with explanation as to my absence. Please have Henri prepare my horse; I must go to Paris right away, to speak with Minister Ouimet."
"Very good, m'lord," replied the servant. "And the boys? What about them?"
"They may stay the night here, in the house. Prepare beds for them. Come morning, give them breakfast, then send them to Paris via my carriage. These boys have suffered enough, and their friend will have to be found."
A worried Marie asked, "And what about the dancer, La Esmeralda? She is the boy's cousin, and surely she has the right to know her kin has possibly met with foul play."
To that, Clement replied, "I will inform Esmeralda myself. At least such news should come from a friend."
Go to Chapter 8