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Authors: Nicole Margot Spencer

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BOOK: Exile’s Bane
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“Yes, you must,” Thomas said. He took a deep, relieved breath, then stood protectively behind me and gestured eloquently at me. “This is Lady Elena, you know. She is the heiress of Tor House, an important lady hereabouts.”

“He knows who I am. We have met before,” I said, though I was not about to admit how I knew him.

The sergeant warmed his hands at our fire, but refused to allow his men in. When I asked why they could not protect us within the house, Burke’s tired half-smile parted his mouth.

“Our captain, our prince for that matter, ask no more of us than they themselves do. We keep to our post.”

And so, he and his men in their canvas cloaks stood outside our closed door and at the gate in the pouring rain, not always at attention, but certainly at their posts. I was impressed. Most soldiers I had seen would desert the minute they got the chance. My own loyal guards would certainly have taken the mistress up on her offer of warmth and shelter.

By late afternoon, I could wait no longer.

“Where be ye off to?” Peg asked with a frown. The short whisking motion of the brush on her auburn tresses stopped. She pushed her hair back behind her shoulders.

“To find Duncan and ask his help in getting to the King.” I pulled my cloak hood up over my head. “Sergeant Burke says he should be near the town hall. That was his plan, to find quarters there.”

On my return from the privy moments earlier, I had convinced the sergeant that I had to see the captain immediately, that it was a matter of life or death. Besides, the rain had decreased to a dribble. In his considered, though wary manner, he had responded that he would be honored. He even saddled Kalimir for me and brought him to the gate.

“Maybe we can catch sight of the prince, too, ye think?” Peg said. She reached for her own cloak, the brush returned to its habitual pocket.

“No,” I said. “You must stay here. The guards will protect you.”

“Ye cannot go alone,” Peg insisted with a huff, her face blazing in indignation.

“Who is this Captain Comrie?” Thomas challenged. He looked me over as though he did not know me, offended.

“Do you remember the man you so ungraciously met yesterday and again in town?”

“Yes.” He nodded, suspicious of my intent. “I know, the odd tinker.”

“That tinker was one of Prince Rupert’s lifeguard captains.”

“I am not surprised. I told you as much.” He returned to his chair, extended his arm, resting it on the wide chair arm. “You were kissing him,” he said with a sudden frown, his voice hoarse with accusation.

“I will return,” I said firmly, not interested at the moment in his criticism or Peg’s demands.

“You cannot leave us.” Thomas came up off the chair, straight to me, and clenched my shoulders in his hands. “These guards mean nothing. Your safety is our safety. Do you not understand this?”

“You will be fine,” I responded sternly, dismayed at his groveling. This was something left over from childhood. It surprised me to still see it in him, this display of why
he
should be kept safe, his underlying fear etched into his face and imbedded in his words.

“We will await thee.” Though Peg’s face drooped in disappointment, she escorted me to the door, twin lines of concern deep between her brows.

“Yes, we will stay.” Thomas stood aside. “Godspeed,” he spouted resentfully.

We entered the street that I knew would take us close to the center of town and the town hall. Roaming crowds of soldiers greeted us on foot and ahorse. The dead littered the doorways and alleys. We passed a corpse sprawled in a puddle. A pike protruded from his back. The sight made me nauseous. Had Duncan truly survived this?

At the first square, Burke, who rode close beside me, smiled languidly at me, belying the threat of his drawn sword held across the pommel of his saddle.

“Do you know, Sergeant, if Lord Devlin is in Bolton?” I asked.

“Somewhere, yes. Trying to control the thievery, I believe.”

“We must avoid him.”

“As you wish, my lady,” he said, with a wiggle of his mustache. He studied me, and apparently decided that I meant my words, for he nodded.

Huge, rain pocked puddles were everywhere, complicating our progress. As well, it took some skill to avoid the filthy water that ran down the center of most streets, dark with blood and human waste.

After the next small square, we passed into a more affluent area of towering houses under high peaked roofs. Cries and screams sounded in the distance.

“Is it a fight to find the enemy, house to house?” I asked the sergeant.

“No, my lady.” Our horses side by side, he leaned close. “It is mostly pillaging now.”

“You mean, our own men?”

He could see my shock and so explained the common soldier’s right of free quarter. Each man had a right to housing and food, supplied by his conquered subjects. He confirmed my suspicions, what I did not want to believe of our Royalist troops. We had seen no Roundheads, just city folk struggling to escape.

“It has gotten out of hand, then?”

“Our men have long been hungry and without pay.”

We went down more roads crowded by tall houses, their second stories leaning over the cramped streets. We turned a corner, where carousing soldiers eyed me with obvious relish, until they got a clear look at my escort. They stumbled away behind us.

We passed an inn that had attracted a large number of men at arms. Musketeers were clumped in the street, reeling drunk. Something about the look of them, the way they fell back into one another and a nearby rearing horse brought back . . .

. . . Hundreds of musketeers forced together between opposing cavalry charges. The musketeers, who fought on foot, were unable to bring up their weapons for lack of space. In brutal attempts to escape, they shoved at one another. Their coughs hacked through the heavy black gun smoke. There was something in their way, something I could not see that they could not get past. Royalist horses reared and struck down their own men. The remaining musketeers fell back into one another in an attempt to clear the way for their cavalry to get through, but they went down in massive numbers under the pikes and swords of the charging enemy . . .

Back where I belonged, thank God, the stench of offal and blood tainted the wet air in Bolton. I swooned, nearly unhorsing myself. Burke’s horse came up beside Kalimir, who allowed it with a snort. Our knees touched and his gloved hand caught me, held me upright in the saddle until I recovered.

“We’re almost there, Lady Elena. Can you continue?”

“Let us go on,” I said, shaking not from the cold rain, but from the impact of a returning vision, something I had never experienced before. The soft drizzle fell in my face, like a gentle admonition.
What is this thing in my head?

Finally a dim, crowded street opened out into the main square where large numbers of gathered Royalist musketeers and cavaliers milled around the imposing town hall on the other side of the square. No plundering here. Sergeant Burke asked an officer where he might find Captain Comrie. The officer pointed to the large house to the right of the town hall.

We tied up our horses at the plain ring post mounted before the house and entered to find somber walls and a simple sturdy table in the hallway. Directed to a back room where voices and a familiar explosive laugh sounded, we went down the austere hallway and entered the open door.

I pushed my hood back and looked around at a bed, a chair, a table, and one candle and holder. It was cold and uninviting, but I appreciated the simple smells of wood, clean bedding, and damp humans after what we had come through to get there. I stepped into the room, stopped short, and jerked my wet cloak tight around my neck, a defense against the sight before me. My heart dropped. I could not breathe.

Duncan stood before me, still in his body armor, though his hat with its droopy turquoise feather and his bridle gauntlet lay as though they had been flung onto the bed. His perfect smile was directed at a woman who hung off his arm.

She looked to be a baggage-train tramp, her breasts leaning out over the tight, boned bodice that seemed out of place in the unadorned room.

He turned his head and saw me. The smile fell away, and his essential confidence flagged.

“Elena?” he stepped toward me, hand extended in entreaty. “What are you doing here, out in this chaos?” Confidence back in spades, his stern gaze shifted abruptly to Burke. “Sergeant, your orders were—”

“The lady insisted, sir.” Burke saluted his captain. “A matter of life and death, she said.”

“And you listened to her?”

“I did what I thought you would do, sir, were you in my place.” Sergeant Burke lowered his head, his mouth compressed into a tight line, barely visible under his mustache. His big hat dripped onto the floor before him.

“Who is this?” I managed to ask, offended by the girl’s appearance and her proximity to Duncan.

She had long blond hair. Her painted mouth curved into a frown over a slight overbite. This defect was overcome by her facial rouge and her dress. The rectangular, low cut neckline exposed most of her breasts, so much so that it seemed her nipples must pop out at any moment. She moved sinuously, as I would imagine a harlot might move to attract her customers. She was pretty, had a voluptuous body, and seemed to know it. She swayed slightly, her yellow skirts following her slightest move, which accentuated her tiny waist.

“Go away,” the girl purred in oversweet tones. She pulled closer to Duncan and pressed her breasts into his arm. She studied me with a feral smile. “He belongs to me.”

“Annie, stop it.” Duncan’s voice rose in irritation. He turned to me. “Elena, this is not what you think. Annie is my cousin.”

A sob ripped out of me, my face afire. “What kind of fool do you take me for?”

“Listen to me,” he insisted. His face went rigid. Anger sparked in his dark eyes. He reached for me again.

I stepped back, close beside the sergeant. My limbs, my very face shook in aching despair.

The girl continued to hang on him, would not let him go. No, it was he who would not push her away, my senses insisted. I was hardly blind.

“Where is the prince?” I asked Burke. I clawed at his solid arm, tugged at the soaked hide of his buff coat.

“Lady, I do not know.”

Humiliated and embarrassed, I whirled around, ran into the hallway, and out of the building. It took two tries to untie Kalimir’s reins, my hands shook so badly. I led him quickly away across the crowded square. Every officer that came my way, I approached and asked where the prince was to be found. The third or fourth officer gave me a pitying smile, waved me away, and spurred his horse into a departing trot.

I mounted and urged my stallion into the crowded, smelly streets that led to the east side of town. My knees clutched his bellowing sides as we wheeled around knots of rioting men, splashed headlong through extensive puddles covering who knew what obstacle or depression, and jerked away from hands that reached for us. I reined him in when the way was clear, but never stopped. Speed was our only ally, though more than once I drew my sword in reaction to insistent hands that would not release their hold on the reins, or in one instance, on my foot. An hour or more later, I had begun to think I would make it back to the Reedy House, when, in the near darkness of looming nightfall, my uncle appeared at the head of a crowd of oncoming cavaliers that charged up the street toward me. His mouth was white-rimmed, his forward-leaning stance in the saddle indicative of extreme fury. I turned Kalimir in a space in the crowd and fled before the oncoming cavaliers. The great bay sensed my fright and broke into a dangerous gallop. He ran down one man and leapt over a disabled cart.

BOOK: Exile’s Bane
9.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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