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Authors: Sherry Gloag

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BOOK: Vidal's Honor
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“No.”

For the past five weeks Honor had cocooned herself from thoughts of Dev. Phillipe had told her, the day after they arrived in the village, he'd discovered the French had executed her husband. Now she struggled to process Phillipe's words. Was Dev really some kind of agent?

“Yes.”

“What?”

“You asked whether your husband worked as an agent. The answer is ‘yes'.”

“Is that why he was taken?” She still refused to say it, to acknowledge the truth. If she spoke the words aloud it made everything final, unredeemable.

“We think Lord Beaumont was about to reveal the identity of the French spy within the ranks, and they killed him to prevent him unmasking them.”

The harsh tones of Phillipe's voice belied the sadness in his eyes. Honor shivered. Even the September sun failed to stop the sudden chill that swept through her.

Honor sank down onto the only chair in the small room, before her legs gave way.

If Phillipe was to be believed, her wonderful Dev, the man who loved her so tenderly, protected her so tenaciously, and danced with her in the moonlight only hours after their wedding, had been a spy.

Upon reflection she was unable to deny the possibility.

Dev always carried an aura about him. A charismatic air of authority mixed with charm that drew men and women alike to him. It had been one of the things that attracted her to him and at the same time caused her the greatest disquiet when he had asked her to marry him. It seemed absurd, in hindsight, that she'd ever doubted his fidelity, or wondered for a moment whether he'd remain faithful to her.

His integrity strengthened his hand and made it possible for him to do the work he carried out for his country.

She didn't want to leave this isolated village where Phillipe and his wife had opened their home to her, and where she'd begun to make friends with some of the other villagers. “How could they believe I have any secret information?”

“It's more than probable they don't think you do have any details, but Bonaparte wants every stone turned to uncover the information Lord Beaumont took to the grave with him.”

“Let me get this clear, you think the French want me because they assume I know more than I do?”

“No!” Phillipe snapped. “I know they are looking for you. If they find you here, they will not only take you away, as a punishment for protecting you they will wipe out the entire village.”

Shocked into silence, Honor fought to make sense of Phillipe's horrific prediction.
Wipe out the village?
She couldn't bear it. The thought that she could be responsible for the deaths of people who'd offered her nothing but kindness horrified her. “Then you better tell me what arrangements you have made, for I assume you have already put plans into action. But first, tell me —” Honor paused and searched the Spaniard's features. “If bringing me here was such a huge risk to your people, why did you do it?”

“I promised Lord Beaumont I'd get you away to safety and if possible arrange for you to go home to England.”

Could one Spaniard, living in the middle of his country and surrounded by French and partisan soldiers, arrange for her safe return home? “And you have done this?”

“Of course.”

Of course he had.

While Dev's batman, Phillipe had worked miracles, obtaining information and supplies no one else managed to find, let alone acquire.

“It is not your fault you have been here for five weeks. Due to rough weather at sea your escort's arrival in Gibraltar has been delayed.”

“Escort? Gibraltar? I don't understand.”

“Lord Vidal has volunteered to accompany you across Spain and through France. It's too dangerous for one of our own to take you more than a few miles. The French have already destroyed several key links in our chain of communications during their search for you, so trust is low among our people.

“I had to contact our agent in London, to arrange your safe transport home. Now we wait for this Lord's arrival. We expected him days ago and now we have run out of time and it is too risky for us to keep you here any longer. You must go.”

“Where? If they are searching this area how can I get away without creating more danger to your people?” Wildly her thoughts skittered through internal pictures of the visible hills, paths and scrubland that gave way to vast tracts of flat land, with villages scattered along the way.

"
Pillage and burn.
"
Devlin's words came back to her when she'd asked to join him when he returned to the Peninsular
. "
Ravages of battle, my dear,
"
he'd said in a futile effort to persuade her to remain in England
.
"
Honour among thieves is the least of our problems when an army is in retreat. Rules, as you understand them, no longer exist. To the French the only rule of survival is depravity. War-torn Spain is not a location for a gently bred woman

"
And you consider my place as your new bride to be back here in England,
"
she'd shot back at him.
"S
ewing chair covers and acting the grand hostess at ridiculous tea-parties while you risk your life for our country on your own?
"
Of course, she'd not meant literally "on his own," but "away from her."

It seemed she'd not only caused Dev more problems than she realised with her insistence to join him on his mission, but she'd put many other innocent people at risk.

“You must go,” Phillipe said again, his bald statement jolting her back to her surroundings. “The longer you stay here the more you endanger the lives of the local
guerrilleros
.”

“Of course.” Guilt overwhelmed her. She didn't want to leave her new haven. Instead she straightened her spine, pulled her shoulders back and lifted her chin and looked Phillipe in the eye. “I should never have stayed so long.” She'd promised Dev she'd follow Phillipe's orders and wouldn't break it now however much the prospect of leaving the illusive safety of the village frightened her.

“I will never forget your friendship.”

She wanted to say more, and choked on the words, so she simply raised her protector's hand and brushed her lips over his knuckles. “Thank Sancia for me. Perhaps one day...”

Phillipe stepped forward, engulfing her in a bear hug.

“One day, my friend,” he agreed. “It has been an honour to include you in our family. Now two of my men are outside, ready to take you to a secluded shack where they will stay while you wait for your English Lord.”

“Is it safe for them to do to that? I'm sure I will manage there on my own.” She wasn't sure of any such thing, but the thought of endangering the lives of those who'd protected her so far made her feel ill.

“You will call them Tom and Harry.” Phillipe ignored her concern for the men. “It is their duty to carry out my orders.”

Honor hid a smile. At times Phillipe sounded as pompous as the most top- lofty English aristocrat. When he moved aside, she saw two men, huge men, just beyond the open doorway. Behind them fluffy white clouds dotted the wide expanse of deep blue sky.

The men nodded, offered quick smiles, then stepped back in an obvious desire for her to hasten the inevitable.

Once again she'd have to leave all she valued behind. With a sigh she reached for her jacket, and picked up her only pair of boots.

“You must wear these.” Phillipe handed over the worn faded brown half-breeches he carried. “It will be easier for you to ride astride, and hopefully, as long as you keep your hair covered, any soldiers you encounter will take you for a youth travelling with a couple of your elders. Not only that, because Napoleon banned officers' wives, women in general, and any dressed as men from accompanying their armies, the French troops rape and pillage wherever they stop. So understand that while these clothes will help in your disguise, they will not stop the French if they capture you.”

Wordlessly, Honor took the garment and scurried behind the tattered curtain that separated her bed from the rest of the single-roomed mud hut she'd used for the last five weeks.

A couple of minutes later she rejoined Phillipe, accepted his smile of approval, and headed for the door to join her escorts.

“Don't forget this.” Phillipe handed her a battered cap, which with a grimace, she rammed onto her head, before he passed over a cracked leather pouch.

“Some provisions, enough to keep the three of you for two days, no more. Now, be gone.”

Their mules were typical pack animals such as those she'd seen working in the fields and which the locals used to travel the narrow paths from one village to the next. Without ceremony Phillipe tossed her onto the third animal, slapped its rump, and before she had time to thank him for his friendship and support she found herself galloping out of the village without another word for her friend.

Almost as soon as the village vanished from sight the leader gestured for her to slow down. “We do not want to draw attention to ourselves, so we must travel more leisurely.”

It made sense to Honor, and afraid the bouncing up and down on the animal's back for any length of time would turn her rear black and blue, she nodded and gave him her heartfelt thanks.

Soon the trail narrowed and roughened. Wind-blown scrub battled to take over the narrow ribbon of space. Rocks and larger boulders scattered the surface of the track the higher they climbed. The wind howled in glee as it tore up the path behind them swathing them in its chill embrace, and robbing the pale afternoon sun of any chance of sharing its warmth. A steep rise was how she thought of the terrain, not sheer enough to be mountainous, nor similar to the hills round Dev's home.

Snow on the mountains, beyond the wide expanse of plains, glistened bright as diamonds, first a pale gold, then fading to silver, and finally slipping to rose. From the position of the sun Honor understood they were travelling towards Salamanca once more. Dread threatened to overcome her determination to face her future without complaint. She didn't want to see the two flat-topped hills flanking the village of Arapiles or the open land spread out beyond the village. Swallowing the bile rising in her throat, Honor stared at the changing colours of the peaks. Still rose-tipped, their bases hidden beneath a deep cover of darkness.

Just thinking about returning to those expansive plains— it would be gruesome. Perhaps if they crossed the land under the cover of night she'd manage to cope.

After a brief stop to eat one strip of dried meat and drink water from their containers, the men set off again, one riding ahead, the other bringing up the rear. The narrow tracks made conversation impossible, so she focussed on the back of the man in front and kept her fears at bay, and wondered how much further they would travel before stopping for the night. Or did the men intend to use the cover of darkness to ride as far as possible and then rest up during the day?

The view across the plains where rice and esparto used to grow, before Napoleon marched against Portugal and Spain, was now charred from fires set by the French. She wondered where the enemy soldiers acquired their ropes from now, since they'd destroyed the main ingredient for making rope.

And the shack Phillipe mentioned. What kind of place would it be? Big enough to accommodate three people, two of them as huge as her two guides and protectors?

She gave herself up to the rhythm of her mule, letting the hours slip by, and nearly bumped into her leader when he stopped.

“We must leave the path,” he spoke in a low tone.

“Is something wrong?”

“Men approach, and at this time in the evening it is not likely to be anyone local. So we must take shelter.”

Honor peered round the man and stared up the path ahead. “I can't see anything.”

“I hear them,” the man named Tom said. “Move quickly.” And without another word he took hold of her mule's reins and led her away from the track to an outcrop of tumbled rocks, on each side of which stone-pine trees struggled to survive, adding a little more security to the sparse haven. When she looked back the second man was nowhere in sight.

Fear, sharp and visceral, shot through her. Were Phillipe's men about to betray his trust?

“Do not be alarmed. We separate so if one is discovered the other of us can still guide you to safety.”

Shame nudged her fear aside. Had the man read her mind, or intuitively understood her feelings? Whichever, she nodded, and dismounted without a word, led her mount off the track, and persuaded it to lie down.

It wasn't long before she made out the sound of voices in the distance. She slid to the ground and leaned her back against the rocks as instructed and watched Tom scale the outcrop to observe the band of travellers.

Raucous shouts carried on the breeze. Surely, Honor thought, it meant the newcomers were locals. Then she heard a cry of pain followed by silence, and shivered. The male laughter grew closer and a babble of French, too fast for Honor to understand completely, but she picked up enough to recognise one man ordered the others to leave the woman where she fell.

The ribald replies were too rapid and full of oaths for her to comprehend. She pressed further against the rocks, too fearful to even breathe. It seemed an age before the band of men drew level, then passed on by without stopping.

Tom waited several minutes before he slid down from the rock and urged his weary mule to its feet.

“It's not safe to remain here. They may yet come back for the woman.”

“Why would they do that, they said she was no use to them anymore. I thought you said Napoleon had banned women from travelling with the army?”

“Those men are probably renegades.”

His words brought to mind one of Dev's warnings
.
"
There's little about army life that can be described as safe, and deserters are often the most dangerous of all for discovery will certainly be the end of life for them
."

BOOK: Vidal's Honor
4.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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