Authors: David Michael
Gunshots exploded around them, louder than Margaret had ever heard before, more like cannon than rifles. The night became day and Margaret thought she saw Miss Rose, standing back to back with Chal, with white-hot lightning erupting out of Miss Rose’s small pistol to consume a black monster straight out of Margaret’s nightmares, all long claws and exposed teeth. The flash of the lightning faded, leaving only the image of the creature it had ripped apart burned into Margaret’s eyes and memory. Janett screamed and grabbed for Margaret. Margaret returned her desperate embrace and found herself screaming as well.
“Stand!” the major shouted, and he did, towering above the girls with his rifle held in both hands. “Aim!” He brought his rifle up to his eye and extended it parallel to the ground. Janett stopped screaming and buried her face against Margaret’s neck. Janett’s hand tried to force Margaret’s head close, but she twisted to see what the major was aiming at. There could not possibly be two of–of–whatever that had been. “
The blast of multiple guns in a ring around the girls startled Margaret and made Janett whimper. The flash of his gun illuminated Major Haley’s face for an instant. Margaret had never seen him look so serious.
Still standing tall, Major Haley began to reload his rifle, every movement precise, as if he were back on the parade ground at the fort. Margaret saw the other soldiers doing the same. She only counted four of the solders, though. She hoped Corporal Higgs was not hurt, but she could not identify the men in the dark.
A hissing patch of blackness launched itself out of the night and struck one of the soldiers with a crunching wet sound. The man gave a startled cry and stumbled back, dropping his rifle. He tripped over the prone forms of the girls.
The major’s rifled fire again. For that instant, Margaret saw the huge wound in the soldier’s chest and the black axe still embedded there, saw the axe handled quivering and the blood spraying out of his ruptured heart. She screamed again.
The night became a writhing, hissing blackness around the girls and the soldiers. Several of the soldiers got off one more shot, then the attackers–whatever they were–were too close. Hisses and grunts and the sounds of metal on metal became Margaret’s universe. She and Janett huddled even closer together and hid their faces against each other. Boots stepped on her, and a cold, clawed foot tripped on her. She did not want to scream, but she could not help herself. At least if she screamed, she could not hear the sounds of bodies being hacked and torn apart.
Another explosion like a cannon and a wave of heat washed over Margaret. The smell of burnt powder and burnt flesh followed the heat and she gagged. There were more shouts and sounds of struggle, but she hardly noticed as she tried not to throw up into Janett’s bosom.
Hands, warm hands Margaret noticed, without claws, grabbed her and pulled her away from Janett. Neither girl wished to let go of the other, but the hands insisted. Someone lifted her to her feet and said, “We have to go, Margaret.” Chal’s voice, whispered into her ear. “Quickly.”
Margaret opened her eyes and let out her breath in relief that she could not see anything. Only Chal, and one of the soldiers, either Tishman or Cummings, who helped Janett to her feet. Janett seemed unable to stand, so the soldier hefted her over his shoulder and balanced her there with both hands. He looked at Chal and Margaret, then said, “Where to?”
“To the boats,” Major Haley said from behind Margaret, his voice sounding strained. “We’ll lose them downriver.”
Margaret turned around and saw Major Haley. The left side of his face and head was covered in blood, and he held his left arm close to his chest. In his right hand he held his officer’s sword, the blade covered with black and red gore. Her stomach revolted and this time she could not stop the nausea. She threw up on the ground in front of her. Chal put an arm around her waist, preventing her from falling to her knees.
They moved toward the river, Margaret stumbling along, still held up by Chal. Margaret tried to wipe the vomit off her face with her free hand. A figure came out of the darkness in front of them and Margaret almost screamed, but she choked it down to a sob when she saw it was Miss Rose. The woman had blood on her trousers, and carried her pistol.
“The pirogues have been holed,” she said. “We’ll have to run for it.” She looked at the group. “Where’s Ducoed?”
“I saw him pursue our attackers into the trees,” Chal said.
A sound like a distant cannon boomed.
“Stupid bastard,” Miss Rose said. “He’ll have to catch up. Let’s go.”
“We should … not leave him,” Major Haley said. “He alerted us to the attack.”
“We can’t wait for him. Let’s go. Now.”
There was no further argument.
They did not run. They could not. Major Haley limped beside the soldier carrying Janett, with his sword still held in his good hand. Margaret kept her feet only because Chal held her up. Eventually, Miss Rose put an arm around Margaret as well, and the two women dragged her along.
Margaret wished she could faint like Janett had. Just go unconscious and forget. Or just close her eyes against the menacing darkness and plant life they pushed through. But if she closed her eyes, she saw the monster again, it’s half-metal, half-human form being ripped apart by lighting. Or she saw the soldier die, his exposed heart and lungs leaking blood around the black axe. Or Major Haley’s face, his left ear hacked away. She wondered if she would be able to close her eyes again.
Her legs felt as if they would fall off, but Miss Rose would not let them stop. Not when the darkness gave way to the gray of dawn. Not even when Major Haley requested it. “We’re leaving a trail an idiot could follow,” Miss Rose said. “Even with Chal’s help.”
Margaret looked up at Chal, her eyes resisting the command to focus. She wished Chal did not need to help her. She did not want to be a burden.
“Shh,” Chal said, and kissed Margaret on the forehead.
The kiss surprised Margaret, because of the familiarity, and because a warmth spread over her from the still-tingling point on her brow.
Margaret stared at Chal, who only laughed at her. She still hurt, especially her legs, but she felt she might be able to continue. Which was good, because Miss Rose pushed them forward again.
“I know a place,” Miss Rose was saying to Major Haley. “If we can reach there, maybe we can lose them. Or at least take some time to rest and figure out another way to the fort.”
Rosalind awoke, but her nightmare did not end. She was still in the carriage, still lying on her side on the rough, wooden floor. Her head was still covered by the foul-smelling black bag and her arms still shackled behind her. She screamed. For Mum. For Father. For Elizabeth. For anyone. The bag and the stench choked her and made her gag, but she did not stop screaming until her throat was raw and she could only whimper.
No one came.
If the driver of the carriage heard her, he made no mention of it nor gave any indication. She could hear him on his bench at the front of the carriage, the planks of the bench creaking as he shifted his weight, occasionally snapping a command to the team of horses.
It was as if Rosalind Bainbridge did not exist anymore. As if she had become a blind and powerless ghost adrift in a barrel.
In desperation, she tried to reach into herself again, to touch the awful coldness that had helped her against William Phillips. And … nothing. Nor could she summon the warmth that had filled her the day she touched Cobbler Stevens’ wife and healed the woman of consumption in the lungs. The warmth and the cold were there, inside her, she could sense them, but out of reach. An invisible wall separated her from that part of herself. Her mind could not concentrate, her heart could not open. She had been shackled more completely than she had known was possible.
She did not know how much time passed before she felt that first, soft touch on her shoulder and a man’s voice asked, “Would you like a spot of tea, missy?”
Her throat tight and raw, she could only whisper, “Take me home.”
“That I can’t do, missy, but if you’ll take a sip of this tea, I can take those irons off.”
She wished she could cry. But like her voice, her tears were long gone. “Please, mister. Take me home.”
“You’ll feel better after you have a spot of tea.”
Hands sat her up, leaned her back against the inside wall of the carriage, then gently removed the mask. Rosalind closed her eyes against the brightness.
“Here, drink this,” the man’s voice said, and something warm and pungent was pushed close to her face.
Rosalind turned her face away from the drink, but the warmth and the bitter smell moved with her.
“If you don’t drink this,” the man said, “I can’t let you out of the irons. We’ve a long trip ahead of us, and you’ll be much more comfortable.”
Rosalind opened her eyes, squinting, and could see the cup of tea in front of her face. And the man who held it up to her. He met her eyes. He did not smile at her, but he looked nonthreatening. Just an older man in a rumpled red uniform. Behind him she could see an empty stable yard in the first light of day. Had it been only a single night since she had been taken from her family? Since her family had pushed her away?
“I just want to go home.”
The man shook his head. “There’s no going home again, missy. The army’s your home now. It’s a rum go you’ve had the past day and night, but the army can be a good home if you give it a chance.”
Rosalind sobbed, but the man looked unmoved. He pulled the cup back and waited for her to finish. Then he held the cup close to her lips again. For the first time, she realized she was thirsty. But she turned her face away again.
“The Leftenant will be here soon,” he said. “If you haven’t drunk your tea, I’ll have to put the bag back on your face, and leave you in the irons.”
The thought of being alone in the darkness again, and her thirst, made Rosalind face the man and open her lips.
“That’s a girl,” the man said, and he held the cup to her lips as she took a sip. The tea was lukewarm, and bitter. She wrinkled her nose. Even Elizabeth made better tea. “Drink it all, you’ll feel better.” Rosalind suppressed a sob at the thought of her sister, and forced herself to drink the entire cup.
She felt sleepy even before the man put the empty cup away. Thoughts of escaping drifted through her mind as the man moved her around and took the cold shackles from her arms. But her mind could not hold the thoughts, and her arms and legs felt so very, very heavy. If the man had not helped her sit on one of the benches, she would have remained on the floor of the carriage. Then she slept.
* * *
The carriage was a simple box on wheels, longer than it was wide, with a single door and benches to the front and back. Built of thick wood planks, with no windows and only narrow slits for air near the ceiling, the carriage was a more than adequate prison for Rosalind Bainbridge, formerly of Phillips on the Birchwood. Like its driver, the carriage was neither friendly nor unfriendly. It just rolled along, taking her inexorably toward whatever destination awaited her.
The driver gave his name as Sergeant Morris. When Rosalind asked him where he was taking her, he said, “First, we’re going to get you some company for the ride. Then it’s off to the King’s Coven with the lot of you.” Most of her questions, though, over the two days since she had first awakened in the carriage, he did not answer. He never got upset with her, even when she screamed and threw his tea back at him. He would just shrug and make her another cup, and remind her that it was either the tea or the irons. Sergeant Morris mentioned the Leftenant sometimes, as well, as an added inducement, and a few times Rosalind had heard Sergeant Morris talking with another man, but she had not seen anyone else.
She still wore the dress she had put on to attend the summer solstice festival. The material of the dress was rumpled, from her struggles the day of the festival, and from being slept in since then, and was now accumulating stains around the hem. She shifted her position, trying to find a comfortable position on the uncomfortable bench. She still wore her corset, as well, and it was still laced up the back and tied. The stiff undergarment made sleeping–and sometimes breathing–even more difficult, but she refused to ask the sergeant to help her with it. It would not be proper. Besides, the dress and the corset were all she had left. She refused to give up either of them.
The carriage stopped, rocking her forward. Rosalind opened her eyes. Then the horses started forward again with a shout from Sergeant Morris. Rosalind closed her eyes again. The stopping and starting continued, and she noticed she could hear other horses and wagons and people shouting around the carriage. They must have entered a city.
Rosalind sighed. She did not even bother to open her eyes. She had finally left Phillips on the Birchwood. Here she was in a city, maybe even London itself. But the city was still as impossibly far away as it had been her entire life.
Rosalind’s world had been reduced to just this carriage, Sergeant Morris, an unseen Leftenant, and brief glimpses of English countryside. Though maybe now she would get a brief glimpse of an English city.
The carriage continued its lurching, bumping progress, sometimes enough to rattle her teeth together. When it came to another stop, Rosalind hardly noticed, until she felt the carriage lean as Sergeant Morris climbed down from his high seat. She heard Sergeant Morris say, “Good day, governor. I heard you have a package for me.” As he spoke, his voice faded into the sounds of the city until she could no longer make him out.
Rosalind looked at the slits at the top of carriage. If she stood on the bench and pressed her cheek against the ceiling, she could see out with one eye. If she were lucky, she could even catch a few breaths of fresh air. She had done that a few times over the past two days, but only when the carriage was stopped. She had tried it once while in motion and had lost her balance from the constant bumps. She had fallen and hurt her wrist and nearly split her head open against the edge of the rear bench.