An excerpt from TEMPEST
The sky above Llanwnda was a swirling mass of grey cloud, and the sea to the north was a band of silver. High banks of gorse and steep rocky outcrops blocked the views south; fields and meadows stretched away to the east and west. Mullone found it difficult to instil a sense of urgency with the villagers. The priest of St Gwyndaf's Church, Father Bach, a very small man with a birdlike face and fingers as thin as bird bones, objected to the warning.
'God shall smite them!' he shouted with a surprisingly powerful voice. He was wizened and old, and his hoary hair gleamed in the light. A crowd of villagers circled him. '''You come to me with a sword, a spear and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted''!' Father Bach thrust a heavy-looking bible up at the sky, his wrists, Mullone saw, were near-skeletal. '''This day the Lord will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. And I will give the dead bodies of the army of the Philistines this day to the birds of the sky and the wild beasts of the earth''!'
'That's very inspiring, Father,' Mullone told him, 'but you should take what you can from the church and leave with your flock.'
Father Bach threw him a curious look. His thin arms quivered from holding the Bible still. 'You're Irish!'
'I am, Father.'
Bach nodded with approval, dropping his arms and favouring Mullone with a thin smile. 'You Irish might be a race of beef-heads, but you love three things: God, poetry and violence!'
A smattering of chuckles rose up from the crowd. Sparrows flew from roofs, and a cat, curled up on a barrel, watched the people with sleepy interest.
Mullone's lips curled with amusement. 'I can certainly give you an emotive response now, Father,' he said, then pointed northwards. 'And the approaching French certainly love violence, so I say again,' his perceptive face changed to show exasperation, 'you must leave now! Take what you can and leave no valuables.' He twisted in his saddle, knowing and seeing the fear and befuddlement in their eyes. But this had to be done for the sake of their lives. 'That goes for all of you, leave! Hurry!'
'I will not leave,' Bach rejoined curtly.
'You don't imagine the French are going to leave you and the church silver alone, do you?'
Bach appeared to consider the question for a few moments, almost as though he had never thought about it before. 'No, I don't,' he said mildly, 'but God watches over us, and He will protect us.'
The priest and three villagers stubbornly refused to leave, so they locked themselves in the church. The other folk collected their belongings. One man dressed in black tucked a long-barrelled horse pistol into his belt, and another with the hair the colour of ripe wheat slung an ancient-looking fowling piece over his shoulder and headed to Goodwick. Somewhere a goat bleated noisily. Mullone had dismounted to help a young boy who had dropped a sack containing pewter plates, spoons and other tableware. The boy, who was named Iorwerth, thanked him and Mullone, the last to leave, stepped towards the church and peered through the leper's squint. The oak door had been bolted shut. The silhouette of Father Bach praying below the altar stayed with Mullone as he followed the villagers south.
The road was rutted and still waterlogged from the recent rains. The surrounding countryside reminded him of places of home. Of high heaths and plump meadows, of quick streams and thick woods, of good harbours and stone walls. And there were also larger stone-faced earth banks topped with hedges here, which were difficult to see over, even on horseback. A blackbird swooped across the road between the hedgerows.
'Why are you here?' Iorwerth enquired.
'To warn you of the French.'
'Are you going to protect us?'
'I'm going to do everything in my power to keep you safe,' Mullone said.
'When I need to feel safe, I go up there,' Iorwerth spoke of the gorse-ringed rocky outcrops to the south. 'Those rocks are known as Garnwnda. There's a big stone there like a house. It's got little rooms. Folk say our ancestors built it.'
Mullone wondered if he was talking about the similar ancient stone chambers that dotted Ireland. 'Why do you think they built it?'
The boy shrugged. 'I don't know, but there are bones deep inside. There are a number of the big stones here. My father said giants made them, but I know that's a lie.'
Mullone chuckled. 'You're a bright, boy. When I was a wee boy, I saw a banshee.'
'It's an Irish fairy that makes a terrible tormented wail and claps her hands. Oh, that howling will freeze your blood. A horrid creature. It is known that men can die of fright if they lay eyes upon her.'
Iorwerth looked genuinely intrigued and frightened at the same time. He then frowned. 'How come you're still alive if you saw her?'
Mullone grinned at him. 'I said you were a bright boy.' He plucked a shilling from his waistcoat, and tossed it to the boy. 'How do you know that giants didn't build the stone houses? Maybe your da is telling the truth?'
Iorwerth shook his head. 'If giants built them to live in, why are they so small?'
'That's a good point.'
'And I found a knife,' said the boy. 'It's made of flint, and it would never fit a giant's hand.'
'That old knife might be worth something one day,' Mullone said.
Iorwerth's lips curled, and he patted his coat pocket.
Mullone heard a bird's cry in the wind and looked up to see a sparrow-hawk hover gracefully over a field. He watched it for a while, then something caught his eye. A speck of light through the winter-dark hedges in the bend south of the road ahead. He wondered what it was. Then more flashes, and Mullone instantly knew it was sunlight reflecting on bayonet tips.
It had to be the local Volunteers or militia, and Mullone was glad to know support was coming, or were most likely on manoeuvres. He clicked his horse to go forward. He was called Tintreach, Irish Gaelic for Lightning, because jagged white lines shot up from his hocks. The stallion was a sturdy horse, tall, steadfast and war-trained to kick and bite. Tintreach's ears pricked and he went into a trot. The hooves thudded and the horse furniture jangled, and the militia must have heard Mullone approach, for a command went up and the men halted in the banked road. They were a hundred and fifty yards away.
Mullone's delighted expression dropped like a lead weight down a well. He hauled on the rein and Tintreach whickered as though he understood his master's sudden change of glee. The soldiers resembled British troops but were dressed in brown coats, and that instantly drew alarm. Mullone watched an officer, who was staring back, take a few steps forward.
Mullone's eyes widened.
He cursed, knowing who the clever and calculating man was. He unclipped his pistol from his belt and levelled it.
Voices shouted alarm, and suddenly the air was splintered by the pistol's explosion. Birds fled from the hedges and trees.
Mullone turned back to the villagers, knowing the shot would not have hit anyone at that range. 'Get back!' he screamed, the space in front of him swirled with evil-smelling smoke. 'Back!'
Women screamed, men gasped and the folk panicked. A dog barked, and Mullone kicked Tintreach back as a small volley tore the air where he had been, but the leaden balls clipped the weed-strewn walls or ricocheted against the ground harmlessly.
A villager, the one with the pistol, was shouting at Mullone.
'I don't speak Welsh!' Mullone bellowed.
'Jesus,' the man said. 'What are you doing firing on people?'
The villager with the fowling piece levelled it towards Mullone. 'You fired on the militia!'
'Put that away, you idiot!' Mullone snarled at him. 'They aren't British militia. They're part of the French invasion force!'
Mullone gave a fleeting look over his shoulder. 'There isn't time to debate this! Get your people back to the crossroads and go south!' He turned to a group who were dithering. 'Go! Go!'
'What will you do?'
Mullone bit his lower lip. 'I don't know,' he said grimly. 'Try to slow them down.'
The black-dressed one thought about that, then tossed the pistol up to Mullone, who caught it clumsily. 'She's loaded,' he said before sprinting away.
The yellow-haired man with the fowling piece growled at his departure but hefted the long firearm away from Mullone's form. 'I'll stay with you,' he said in a deep baritone voice.
'You should go,' Mullone told him.
'No foreign bugger is going to tell me what to do, and no foreign bugger invades my land,' the Welshman said and gave a crooked smile to show that he was teasing.
The two of them went back along the road towards Llanwnda, but at the crossroads, the villagers turned south. At the junction, Mullone vaulted from the saddle and reloaded his pistol. The man with the musket was called Hawkins, and he guarded the road. They could hear a scuff of a boot, but Mullone regarded the enemy were wary in case they faced superior numbers in an unknown land.
'Cocksure bastards,' Mullone commented, 'to march like that in broad daylight. Does Goodwick have a good harbour? Is there a good landing spot here?'
'There's no French ships at anchor, only a British one,' Hawkins replied.
Mullone looked at him. 'British?'
'I had to visit my uncle Probert in Goodwick this morning, and that's when he told me about it. It was there this morning. He's a fisherman and was at the harbour when they rowed ashore. Six boats he said. The local Volunteers met them, and off they went to the fort.'
'They aren't British, they are French.'
'How do you know that?'
'Their uniform, although odd, is still British in design, and that may have fooled the Volunteers, but not me.'
'How?' Hawkins asked.
'I recognised one of them,' Mullone said. 'His name is De Marin, and he's a French spy.'
Hawkins's eyes were like boiled eggs. 'A spy?'
Mullone grunted. 'He helped Fouché get rid of Robespierre and works for the Directory. I've known about him for a number of years since Flanders. De Marin is a slippery fellow. Charming, dextrous, fanatical and utterly deadly. My sergeant would say that he could charm salmon from the rivers. Very scholarly, yet equally not afraid to get his hands dirty where it's needed. And the Directory has its hands in a lot of places.'
'He sounds a nasty bugger to tangle with. De Marin,' Hawkins said carefully, as if he was trying to translate it.
'Marine, or seaman, or of the sea,' Mullone returned. 'It could be that he originated from a coastal settlement. I suspect it's just a code name rather than his actual name.'
'Just because he's here doesn't mean the rest of the soldiers are French,' Hawkins pointed out.
'True,' Mullone admitted, 'but I know they are. For the past three weeks I've been trailing the ships. They flew Russian colours and didn't know that they were being watched. They swapped to British colours in the Bristol Channel, but the weather turned sour, and instead of returning to France, they sailed here.'
'Jesus,' Hawkins gaped, 'just who are you?'
'I'm employed by the British government to spy on enemy agents who are trying to bring unrest to British shores. Men like De Marin. Plotting and watching from the shadows like spiders, weaving their webs in the hope of catching their prey. And De Marin, as I said, is a dangerous man, a king of his game, and now he's stepped into the light.'
Hawkins scratched his crotch. 'So you are some sort of spy catcher.'
Mullone peered up at the road. The French may have backtracked or were seeking another route. They were coming, and Mullone had to remain watchful. 'I have yet to catch the man I truly want'. The spider-king, he ruminated deeply, is a truly formidable foe.
'You will,' Hawkins reassured in his deep voice. 'Why have they come to Wales?'
'Bantry Bay,' Mullone muttered, then he saw Hawkins's puzzled expression. Mullone explained to him that he had intercepted a despatch from an Irish Republican called Wolfe Tone to De Marin. Codes had revealed that thousands of men waited in flat-bottomed barges and troop ships for an incursion. Mullone had subsequently alerted the government to the French armada, and the army managed to repel the landing at Bantry Bay, a small village on the south coast of Cork, two months ago. 'I knew of a second fleet that planned to land in the southwest of the country, perhaps near Plymouth or Bristol. They may well have had other plans to march inland and spread the ideals of liberty to the workers. Anything to cause fear. And they came here to do the same, perhaps thinking that they could unite a bond and start a civil war.'
Hawkins cringed, then shook his head. 'Jesus, more fool us. And now the bloody buggering French are here at my door. I can't believe it.'
'Believe it,' Mullone said with vehemence. 'I haven't heard any sounds of musketry, which tells me no one else suspects their wee ruse de guerre.'
'Their treachery and falsehood,' Mullone explained.
They've now taken the fortress, he said to himself, without even firing a shot. They have stores, ammunition, guns and the high ground that dominates the bay and the harbour entrance. Fishguard and Goodwick may now be infiltrated by them. One ship here and the three to the north did not stipulate a massive force. Perhaps fifteen hundred men at the most. But still, it had caught the locals off guard. This was a serious threat.
'How many men did your uncle say there were?' Mullone asked.
Hawkins thought for a moment. 'I think he said about two hundred.'
Two hundred men, probably the elite chosen to garrison the stronghold and secure it. There were not two hundred here now, perhaps a hundred. So Mullone guessed the rest were at the fort. And it meant more than a thousand were to the north.
'There!' Hawkins warned.
The first French appeared a hundred and twenty yards away. They saw Mullone and Hawkins and came slowly, five abreast and at port arms.
'Wait!' Mullone hissed at Hawkins, who was about to pull the trigger. Mullone couldn't see De Marin in the ranks. 'Wait,' he ordered again, hefting the heavy horse pistol in both hands like it was a carbine. He saw Tintreach's long ears twitch and then saw a black form above the stone-faced bank out of the corner of his eye. He swept the pistol up as a Frenchman appeared, and the ball obliterated the man's face, momentarily leaving a red haze in the air.
'Look out!' Hawkins brought the gun above Mullone, and the shot reverberated loudly. Another Frenchman was plucked violently backwards to meet his maker. 'Sneaky buggers,' Hawkins said as he began to reload.
Three men jumped from the opposite bank, their horsehair manes flapping wildly behind them. The nearest to Mullone, a young officer with hatred in his eyes, stumbled, and Mullone kicked him hard in the throat. The officer was knocked onto his back from the impact, his sword skidding across the ground with a clang. Mullone threw down the horse pistol, the blackened muzzle still smoking, and tugged free his sword. A Frenchman lunged with his bayonet-tipped musket. Mullone battered it aside, slammed his sword forward, felt the blade glance off a rib, twisted it in flesh and then ripped it free. The man grunted and pitched forward. Mullone stepped aside, and a musket exploded close to his face, so close that he felt the passage of wind and the scraps of burnt wadding singe his cheek. He staggered, momentarily deafened, but recovered. Half-blinded by the smoke, he rammed his sword into the powder bank, where to his satisfaction, the blade struck and a man shrieked. Mullone heard grunting and turned around. A Frenchman wearing the white shoulder knot of an NCO was brawling with Hawkins. Both men were gripping the fowling gun, trying to pull it free of their assailant. Hawkins was the taller of the two, but the enemy was stronger, and he was forcing the Welshman back and down to his knees. Just when it appeared Hawkins was losing, he pushed the Frenchman back, kicked his shins, then kneed him in the groin. Hawkins snatched the weapon, reversed it and thumped the heavy stock into the man's face, turning it into a mask of blood.
Mullone looked back at the road, where beyond the haze, the enemy were less than sixty yards away. Hawkins took aim, but a musket boomed from across the opposite bank to send the ball slashing across his forehead. Hawkins collapsed onto his knees, dropping the long-barrelled gun.
Mullone quickly snatched it up, turning the musket on a stocky Frenchman who had just crashed onto the road where the officer was clutching at his gullet, coughing and spluttering, and there were three others dead or dying. The Frenchman snarled as he charged, and Mullone hoped the gun was loaded. He pulled the trigger and was amazed at the savage recoil. The ball punched the enemy as though he had been swatted by an invisible deity, for the force sent him backwards to smash into the stone wall.
Mullone slung the firearm over his shoulders and took a semi-unconscious Hawkins over to Tintreach. Blood was pouring down his hair, past his eyes and cheeks, but it was a flesh wound, and head wounds always bled more. He mumbled something incoherent.
Mullone considered their predicament. They could not hope to slow the French anymore, and they were closing fast. He thrust Hawkins's left boot into the stirrup and pushed him up into the saddle, arm muscles screaming with the effort. There was no other option.
'What . . . what are you . . . doing?' Hawkins said groggily.
'You're going south.' Mullone took the Welshman's bag containing loose shot and powder. 'I'm going to draw them away.' He thrust the reins into Hawkins's blood-soaked hands and clasped them tightly. 'Find safety.'
'I can stay!'
'You can't go north ' Hawkins was still talking when Mullone slapped Tintreach's rump, and the stallion galloped away.
As quick as lightning, Mullone quipped as he watched them leave. He had not wanted to let them go, most importantly his prized stallion, but he knew he had to. Keep safe, Tintrí. The word meant fiery-tempered, for the stallion could prove to be irascible and obdurate. But Mullone would not have him any other way.
He heard boots and voices getting closer, and there was only one thing left to do.
TEMPEST is the sixth standalone novella in the Soldier Chronicles series
Fishguard, February, 1797: HMS Britannia anchors off the Pembrokeshire coast in the dying days of winter. Two armed companies of soldiers row ashore, led by the charismatic American, Colonel William Tate. They are met by the local Welsh Volunteers who, unlike the suspicious locals, have been expecting them.
But one man has been secretly shadowing a small flotilla bound for the same destination. Major Lorn Mullone, a shrewd Irishman who is employed by the British government, considers that their arrival here is more than fortuitous.
Is this just a mere coincidence or perhaps a ruse de guerre? Mullone has to uncover the truth and, with every step of the way, he must tread carefully if he is to survive.