Authors: A Rose in Winter
er head ached. It ached with a kind of thudding regularity that indicated she had not been unconscious very long, although she was stretched out on something soft, and covered for warmth.
“Hello, hello,” said a singsong voice beside her ear. She winced without meaning to, causing the voice to grow louder.
“Wake up, my angel. Time to wake up.”
The voice reminded her of her dream, of those pretty little yellow berries she had found one day.
“Solange,” said the voice. “Wake up.”
Such a cheerful color, she had thought, attractive enough for a child of five to want to taste, for surely something so pretty would be sweet as well.
A light slap across her cheek snapped her head to the left. It wasn’t hard enough to really hurt. Not yet.
But the berries had fallen, lost in the thick green grass. She had never forgotten them. They came from a plant she had discovered all alone that day, such a strange plant with a green and purple stem and leaves—
The next slap was slightly harder.
And the name of that plant, she had certainly never forgotten that.
The name was hemlock.
She opened her eyes. “I am surprised to see you,” she said.
Redmond lifted his brows. “I imagine you are.”
Solange looked behind him, seeing that they were in a cramped dark room that smelled of sod and smoke, a burrow carved into a hillside. Outside the low hole that made up the doorway to the room stood at least two men. Everyone, it seemed, had recovered quite nicely. She was sharply sorry for it.
Although the common henbane she had discovered that day in the French countryside would have been enough to stop his breath, she had decided to settle on
something a little more poetic, something a little rarer in the woods, a private joke of her own. She had found it accidentally one day on a supervised outing, no one but she had noticed it. But her mind never let her forget the location of the little mottled plant with the pointed white flowers and cheerful yellow berries.
She had gone back under the cloak of night and collected them as soon as she had been able; for although Redmond was still in England at that time, she had no doubts he would seek her out again one day. After all, he had promised her he would, after the last time he had visited Du Clar. That time he had killed her mare, Gytha.
So in preparation she had dried the berries and stored them in the passageway behind her walls, in the cool darkness where there was no light or warmth to leach away their unique properties. And sure enough, Redmond had returned. But this last time, she had been ready for him.
Or so she had thought. Alas, she was not the herbalist that Damon was. Apparently she had not used enough of them on Redmond.
“I had no idea you were so resourceful and creative in the kitchen, angel,” said Redmond now. “Who knew you had access to my dinner?” He gave a brief laugh, then leaned down close to her face, so close, his rust-colored beard pricked her skin. “You will have no chance to be so resourceful again, of course. It took me long enough to recover from your last effort.”
“My husband will come for me,” she said.
“My poor darling, you have hit your head too hard,
I fear. Don’t you understand, Solange? Your husband has already come for you.”
“He will come, and he will kill you. I am warning you now.”
“Do you perchance mean that man who has stolen my lawful wife? That man who aided in my attempted assassination, that man who will be tried and hung for his crimes against me? That man?”
She made no attempt to move in any way, knowing that it would only draw attention to her in the midst of his madness. Strangely enough, the fear was completely gone. All she felt now was calm resolution. It was going to be finished one way or another. It was finally going to be finished.
“I wish the weather were a little nicer, of course,” Redmond was saying, calmer now. “I find London so dreary in the wintertime.”
He had moved away from her and was uncorking a flask of liquid. His shoulders were hunched over as he pulled out the cork, giving him the illusion of some hump-backed imaginary beast with long, curly hair. A yak, she thought, wasn’t it a yak that had all the hair …
“And I’m afraid you won’t have the opportunity to see any of the famous sights while we are there,” Redmond continued. “Except the court, of course. Perhaps the Tower, as well, if you are very good. Oh, and I know of the most delightful little apothecary shop. I must take you there. The owner has the most interesting little room in the back, filled with all sorts of devices.”
He took a long swallow of the contents of the flask.
“I am not going to London,” she said.
“Oh, but you are.” Redmond came over and sat beside her on the pallet. He made a show of pulling a blanket up to her chin. “For if you don’t go to London, you won’t be able to testify against Lockewood, will you? You won’t be able to describe to the court how he seduced you, persuaded you to harm your devoted husband and then run away with him. And,” he added softly, “we can’t have that. I want the world to know what a devil that man is. I want the world to know of his wickedness before they torture him to death for his crimes.”
“You know he had nothing to do with my plan. You know I acted alone.”
“I know nothing of the kind! I do know my sweet wife was corrupted and stolen from me! That is what I know!”
She said nothing, just watched him, watched the empty eyes become shuttered, considering her.
“Although,” he said, and she heard a world of meaning in his voice. She heard the cunning there, and the laughter. “Although you did seem more than a trifle disturbed that last day, that very day I had arrived to take you back to Wellburn. Do you recall that, Solange? Yes, you did seem angered about something. I wonder … I wonder, could it have been what I told you of Lockewood? Could it have been that pathetic little story of how he came to me at Ironstag and offered me everything to have you?”
She kept her breathing steady, refusing to allow the words to hurt her again. The earl smiled fondly.
“Yes, I believe that might have been it. I told you of
how the sniveling boy came to me that night before our wedding, offered me his gold, his lands, why, everything he thought he had in this world in exchange for you. I told you how I laughed at him.”
She focused on the dim outline of the sod ceiling above her.
“Had I but known what tender emotions you carried for him all these years … How much easier it would have been for both of us. I would have convinced you right away that you could belong to no man but me. It’s not too late. You are still mine, Solange.” The richness in his voice drew shivers down her skin. “Nothing will ever change that. Lockewood will never change that.”
“I was never yours. I was his before any of us were born. You may try, but you will never change that.”
Redmond narrowed his eyes. “You will tell the court the man is possessed of a devil. You will tell them he has practiced black magic upon you, that he is a sorcerer, spiller of innocent blood. That he is an alchemist.”
“I will not.”
He placed both hands beside her shoulders, pinning the blanket tight across her body, trapping her. “Why do you fight me so, darling Solange, when I am the one who loves you, who has cared for you these past years? Even when you scorn me, even when you run away from me, don’t you realize how much I love you? How much I”—his eyes traveled down her form—“need you?”
She turned her head away from him. “You know nothing of love.”
“Nothing? Surely you have wronged me once more! I am wounded! See the power your mere words have over me? Nothing of love! Why, would a man who did not love his wife follow her across the ocean when she fled from him, after she had tried, indeed, to poison him? Would such a man take the pains I have taken to follow your trail, questioning peasants and children and tavern wenches to piece together the tale? Would such a man, instead of going straight to his lawful discourse with the king, choose to follow the trail of his wife, to haunt the woods outside of where she stays, living like the lowest peasant in this squalid hut, waiting for just a glimpse of her again? Waiting for the opportunity to become reunited with her, waiting so patiently for her to appear alone at last to come back to him?”
Redmond’s hands released the blanket and began a slow trail down the outline of her arms. “Would such a man forgive his foolish, weak little wife of her insanity, of her willful defiling by another man, and bring her back into the fold of his arms? Such is love, Solange, the love I have for you.”
His fingers curled over her hands, pulled her upright so quickly that her head was left spinning. Redmond forced her to lean into him, speaking low into her ear.
“You have the gift, Solange. Only you. You know it, and that is why you torment me with it, because you can.”
He smelled like the room, fetid and sour. She tried not to breathe too deeply. “I have nothing for you.”
“No.” His hands moved restlessly over her back. “You know you do. You know yours is the only
essence that will work. I have tried others, yes, so many others. But yours is the only one I can use. It is your natural gift, designed to please me. And, oh, it does, Solange. It does. It will again, very soon.”
Somewhere, far away, a wolf howled into the night.
“My lord,” announced one of the men standing outside. “We have no more time to waste. We must be off.”
“Yes,” he said to the shadow by the door. “Mount up. We are off.”
Solange had gathered her spinning senses by now. She pushed away from him. “I am not going, Redmond.”
His smile was ferocious, slick and glittering in the dark. “How many times must I instruct you to call me by my name? Stubborn little wife. After all I have done for you, after I have taken every consideration for you. Yet I see I have not taught you well enough. Perhaps I was wrong in allowing you to leave Wellburn in the first place. You were docile enough there.”
“I was almost dead there,” she said flatly. “Your precious experiments were in danger of dying with me.”
“Allowing you to reside at Du Clar has only increased your rebellious spirit. Your ladies were quite correct in their reports to me. I must remember to reward them when we return.”
She sat still, keeping her head proudly upright even though it hurt. “I am not going. You will have to kill me first.”
Redmond stood up, impatience marking his movements. “Do not think such mad thoughts. I have no plans to kill you. You are worth nothing to me dead, as you well know.”
“I am not going.”
“But I have no unease about bringing you in a sleeping state, Solange, if necessary, for the whole journey. You know that as well.”
“The reason you didn’t go to the king first is that you have been warned about the rumors, not because you care so deeply for me.”
Redmond said nothing, but she knew by the way he paused in putting on his cloak that she had touched upon the truth. She kept talking, keeping her voice even and steady.
“You knew if you showed your face in the court there would be a goodly chance you would be arrested, didn’t you? You know what they’re saying about you. You know what would happen if you arrived with no proof of your innocence. You know the punishment for what you have done.”
She had his attention; he was listening to her. Solange slowly began to stand up.
“You knew that unless you arrived with someone to testify for you, someone close to you, a member of the peerage, you would be held until enough evidence was mounted against you. You would be interrogated until you confessed, and then you would be hung. But if you arrived with your wife to defend you, the daughter of a respected marquess …”
The wolf howled again, closer now, and an answering
yip, yip, yip
from another echoed away. The earl gave a short laugh.
“You know, there were so many times I regretted the only thing you kept close to your heart was that middling mare of yours. I regretted that I killed it so
quickly, because it brought forth such a magnificent fury in you. I’ll never forget it. You were alive again, vibrant, an angel of rage. You were stunning. It kept my experiments going for weeks. How much richer it will be now, knowing you will be forced to watch Lockewood maimed and killed. All this time there was something you had managed to hide away from me inside your heart. How delightful.”
Outside, the urgent voice of the man came again. “My lord! It is time! We cannot tarry longer!”
Redmond showed no signs of hearing. “You have made all my dreams come true,” he said happily. “The death of a man I despise on top of your agony. It is almost too much to bear.”
“Do you smell lavender?” she asked softly.
The horses began to scream, the two men were suddenly shouting, a tangle of noise and streaking shadows past the doorway made Redmond turn and run over to it, sword drawn.
There were snarls and guttural cries; she heard the horses pound away in a panic. After that there was only silence.
The earl took a few steps outside the door. “My God,” he said, for once sounding shaken. “My God, did you see them?”
“I am not going anywhere with you.” Redmond looked back at her, seeing her with the brightness of the moonlight that had just cleared the clouds. She stood upright and calm in the middle of the dirt room, wild, unbound hair, eyes like flames he had not seen before. “You won’t be going to London either.”
He gripped his sword more tightly. “You are coming with me. You will testify for me. You have no choice.”
“You are wrong. I am staying at Wolfhaven. And”—she tilted her head, giving the appearance of listening to something he could not hear—“you will not be here much longer to say anything, one way or another.”
“Quiet, slut! Do you think because you have let another man touch you that you may speak to me this way? Do you think that because these two idiots are dead that I have no others behind me? I have an army behind me! I am the Earl of Redmond! No one will dare accuse me to my face!”
“No one will have to. I shall testify against you after you are dead.”
He walked over to her and leveled the tip of the sword against her chest. “You tempt me too far, my dear. I have been much too soft with you. I will not make the same mistake in the future.”