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Authors: Sherry Gloag

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BOOK: Vidal's Honor
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Chapter Six

 

Hours later the moon ousted the sun, and an inky blue star-studded night sky sent the birds to roost. After her comment about playing as hard as they fought Honor had closed down, turned inward with her memories, Vidal presumed, and had barely spoken to him until they'd made camp.

So he'd fallen back and let the others go on some distance ahead; he'd watched Juan from his vantage point. How had he missed the growing closeness between the Spaniards? Had Honor noticed? If so she'd given no indication of her feelings.

He'd also spent more time looking behind them and, on one brief occasion, thought he'd seen a glint of light reflecting off a shiny surface. If correct, were their followers watching them through a spyglass? That would account for why he and Juan hadn't spotted them before now. Of course it may just as easily have been a reflection of light on the dark surface of the exposed rocks towering above the path in many places.

Anger swamped him. An anger so powerful, it almost knocked him off his mule. What had Devlin been thinking, allowing Honor to follow him out to Spain? If he'd known… Vidal sighed. He'd have done the same. From his perspective Honor loved Dev, so he'd wished his friend well and bowed out. If it'd been any other man he'd have fought for his love.

Now he wondered whether the Spanish patrol boats had been ordered to let him enter Spain from Gibraltar. If so, Honor had reason to suspect Juan, and yet his instincts told him the Spaniard was trustworthy. His assessment of the situation also confirmed Honor might be right on one count. In the meantime, before they managed to close in he'd have to discover the identity of their unwanted company and try and work out how to evade them. That meant talking to Juan.

Since the night of the storm when they had sought shelter, Juan had avoided all signs of civilization.

The women had provided a warm but sparse meal and Honor had settled down for the night not long after. If only Consuela would follow her. A glance in his direction and he realised she and Juan were probably thinking the same about him. Close, it would seem, had just become as personal as it could get between the Spaniards. Rising, he smiled at Consuela. “Do you mind if I have a quick word with Juan, before he joins you?”

He couldn't tell, in the light cast from the fire, whether Consuela blushed or not, but she dipped her head and moved away.

“Care to walk with me?” In the firelight Vidal saw the other man's assessing gaze on him before he rose.

“There is a problem?”

Was that concern or defence in Juan's tone, Vidal wondered, and how much distance from the women was safe if, as Honor suspected, they had company not far behind them?

He'd spent the afternoon pondering on how to broach the subject and had decided bluntness would save time. It might bruise egos, but safety, in Vidal's opinion, came before ego.

“Are you aware we're being followed?”

“Impossible!” The denial exploded into the night air.

“Shh. I believe it is a fact.” Vidal grabbed Juan's arm and hauled him into the shadows. “Lady Beaumont told me this afternoon she's been aware of it for several days now, but was not certain enough to mention it before.”

“And she decided to confide in you today, why?”

“She didn't. It's obvious she's been worried about something for a while but I put it down to the loss of her husband and her concerns for the future.” He saw no reason to offer more information than necessary.

“And you believe her?”

“Not at first, but I spent more time this afternoon watching our backs, and believe she may be right.”

The air filled with Spanish curses.

“Button your lip, for goodness sake, man. Do you want to advertise our presence if they are nearby?” Perhaps direct had not been such a good idea after all.

“She also told me you have not followed Phillipe's advised route. Why?”

“You were surprised when you discovered we had been followed all the way from Gibraltar. I am not.”

“It sounded like it to me,” Vidal snapped.

“First Mrs. Beaumont's husband is ambushed.” Ignoring Vidal's interruption Juan said. “First Mrs. Beaumont's husband is ambushed, and in a way so diabolical the captors had to be certain they would avoid retribution. So who else in that scene remains with Wellington's troops? Did they march all the way to Madrid with your earl, or were they part of the divisions sent to hustle Marmont's withdrawal? If the latter, then they knew they'd find cover within the retreating army. If they marched towards Madrid with the earl, they had plenty of opportunities to peel off any time without drawing attention to themselves when everyone's concentration was focussed on capturing the city.”

Juan leaned against the trunk of a spindly tree and dug one hand into his pocket, pulled out some tobacco, and paper as if to roll a cigarette, then with an oath changed his mind.

“Only someone close to Beaumont had the opportunity to betray him so successfully.” Juan let the words drop into the nightly silence.

“What are you saying?”

Vidal reeled away, stupefied by Juan's implications. Was he insinuating Honor had betrayed Dev? Would she? Could she? Surely not! His heart contracted so painfully he thought he was suffering a seizure.

The two people he loved the most in his world… Surely one wouldn't betray the other?

No!

For a moment Vidal thought someone had shouted the denial out loud, but Juan, hawk-eyed, stood watching him, waiting.

The silence stretched between them. The pain in his chest receded and his brain began functioning again.

Who else was so close to betray him without discovery? Who else did he know of that could leave the camp undetected?

“You are putting the pieces together, I think.” Juan's tone held neither sympathy nor derision. Perhaps an understanding of the shock pummelling him right now.

“If you are right, why did he let Mrs. Beaumont leave? Why not turn her over to the French?”

“According to his wife, Beaumont extracted a promise from his batman that she is returned unharmed to England.”

“Then why are we being followed?”

“There are many reasons. I have my own idea, but for the moment it is safer I do not share it with you. In a day or two I will know for sure.” Juan studied the two women, both now sleeping.

“We must wake them and move on.” He pointed down the path they'd travelled earlier. “We will not evade our enemies, but we can make it difficult for them to discover our new trail.” He shoved away from the rock and started back to their bivouac. “There is a stream about a mile up the track. It will not be easy at night, but it is the only way to lose them for even a short time.”

* * * *

Befuddled from lack of sleep and the struggle to don her ever-damp garments, Honor let Vidal hoist her onto her mule.

“Why the urgency to move on in the dark? I thought Juan declared this an ideal spot to spend the night.”

“I told him of your belief we are being followed and that afterwards I spent the rest of the journey checking and am almost certain you are correct.”

“If this is the result, I wish I'd kept my mouth shut.”

Vidal's chuckle, low though it was, warmed her heart if nothing else.

“No, you were right to mention it. If we thought it safe enough, one of us would hold back to see if we can identify them, but it's not, so we move on under the cover of darkness.”

From her perch on the back of the mule, Honor found herself eye-to-eye with Vidal. “Won't the sound of our movements alert them to our intentions?”

“We have to risk it. Juan is sure if we go now we can gain enough ground to keep them guessing for a day or two.”

“Well, I hope he is right.” She tugged at the shoulder of her jacket in an effort to persuade the sleeve to line up more comfortably, and winced at the sharp stab of pain in her neck. “At least it has stopped raining, which will give our clothes a chance to dry.”

She swung round when Juan coughed on her other side. Even in the night-light Honor saw him shuffle. “We follow the river.”

“So I gather.”

“You do not understand. We follow the river by using it to cover our tracks from those you say are following us.”

“You—!” Honor remembered to lower her voice and started again. “Are you implying we are going to ride through the water?” Consuela, she noted, didn't appear any more pleased with this plan than she did. “But it is dark, what if we slip and fall?”

“What if those behind us catch up?” Juan snapped back, his patience dwindling. “Let us stop wasting time. We go, and hopefully evade them.” He pointed down the hill. “Or you stay here and take the consequences. It is your choice. Me? I go!” He turned to glare at Consuela. “If you are coming then don't keep me waiting any longer.”

With that, the Spaniard jerked on his reins and headed his mule towards the river.

Afraid the darkness would swallow him up, Honor urged her mount forward and listened to Vidal and Consuela fall in behind her.

The going was tough, slow and bone-deep chilling. The mules balked at the prospect of entering the water in the darkness. Considering they'd crossed several rivers of similar size, Honor couldn't help wondering how the animals sensed this entry would be different.

No amount of urging from Consuela convinced hers to step into the river and it took Juan's impatient tug on the reins and the weight of his own animal to haul the reluctant beast into the water.

“Enough,” he hissed at them. “If we make much more noise we will be heard on the other side of the country. Come, we've wasted too much time as it is.”

With that he splashed to the front and for the next three hours, until the faint promise of dawn touched the sky, Juan led them for miles against the flow of water.

* * * *

Almost falling out of her saddle from fatigue, Honor continued to grapple with the problem that faded in and out of her mind. Something about time and trust? Or was it a lack of trust? Vidal's voice impinged on her inner concentration. But whether it was real or a dream she no longer cared. The cold embraced her like a lover, enticing her into a place of no pain, no thoughts, and no problems.

Carefree.

She tried to remember the last time she'd felt so carefree, until with a curse, she fought the hands calling her back from the edge of blissful oblivion. Someone was shaking her and a voice, harsh and insistent, refused to let her fall back into…

A sharp crack across her face forced her eyes open. “Stay awake, Honor,” Vidal, not Devlin, demanded. What was Vidal doing here when she'd been running to meet Devlin?

Vidal's face loomed over her and that of another, a female. One she thought she ought to know and couldn't place.

“Take this.” Vidal turned away from her at the sound of the voice, and Honor wanted to reach out and stop him but found her arm to heavy to raise. When he looked back she saw his lips move and tried to focus on the words.

“Take a sip of this. It will make you feel better.”

For reasons she couldn't explain she did as he bid and choked on the fire that ran down her throat.

“Take her up in front of you.”

This time when he spoke, Honor recognised Juan's voice.

“I'll lead her mule until she is fit enough to ride alone. But we must keep moving if we are to throw off our unwanted company.”

Where had the darkness gone, she wondered, as a shaft of pale sunlight blinded her when Vidal lifted her onto his mule. Somewhere in the sludge of her mind, she understood something was wrong, but couldn't work out what, and settled for the comfort of Vidal's body-warmth against her back.

When she tried to move she found herself held fast by his arm around her waist. The last time a man held her…

Memories flooded back. Devlin. He'd held her, more than held her the night before…

“What happened?" Angling her head to look up at Vidal she had enough wits to see the fierceness in his face turn bland and unrevealing.

“You fell asleep and almost dropped off your mount.”

The lethargy gripping her limbs didn't feel like sleep to her, but she couldn't drum up the energy to enquire further, and let the blackness envelope her again.

* * * *

“How is she?” Consuela halted, letting the river flow round her animal's legs, and peered into Honor's face.

“Asleep, I think.” Vidal tried to shift his weight without disturbing her.

“I do not think so.” Consuela, her face and voice anxious, stared more closely at Honor. “Look at the swelling on her neck. I think she's been bitten.”

“Bitten? By what?”

“How would I know?” She paused, cast a thoughtful look at Juan's receding back, then called to him. “We have scorpions and several poisonous spiders,” she informed Vidal. “It's too early for the caterpillars. No, not caterpillars, but an insect I believe.”

“Why not a scorpion?” Vidal asked.

“Yes.” Consuela seemed to consider her next words. “It's possible, but if so we must remove her rings, as well as other jewellery she may be wearing. I hope it is not too late.” She threw a disgusted look at the water swirling round her mule. “We need to find the bite and keep it cool.”

“What's the matter now?” Intolerance radiated off the Spaniard. “If we go any slower our followers will overtake us.”

“Honor is ill, and it looks as though she's been bitten or stung.” Consuela's impatience matched Juan's. “We must find a place to shelter.”

“There's no time,” Juan snapped.

“Then she will die.”

Vidal's heart lurched in his chest at Consuela's dire warning. Surely Honor wasn't that ill. He'd spent years in the Peninsula and never suffered from the local predators or venomous wildlife. He watched Juan lean over Honor's inert body, heard his intake of breath, and met his concerned look with an equanimity he didn't feel.

“You heard the lady,” he said, and waited. From the beginning Juan had barely hidden his dissent about guiding him and then Honor across Spain. Would he take this opportunity to lead him and Honor somewhere "safe" and leave their future in the hands of the locals? Or would he simply take the Spanish woman and desert them where they were?

Juan laid the back of his hand against Honor's brow. “She needs attention.” He looked from Vidal to Consuela's impatient features and back again. “Come. Another hour and we'll find help for her. Let us not delay.” Juan's gaze moved past Vidal and along the river they'd waded through for the last several hours. “I hoped to use the river for a couple of hours more before hitting the land again, but now we must go a little further and head for a village I know. Come.”

Daylight, Vidal discovered, did not make their travel through the river much easier. The mules found it as difficult to establish secure footing as they had hours ago. And the silence Juan maintained throughout the night gave way to a constant stream of curses. Vidal assumed Consuela understood them, but she kept a vigilant eye on Honor's condition. Sometimes she trailed the edge of her shawl in the water, squeezed it lightly, and then applied it to Honor's neck and forehead.

“She does not wake.” Consuela looked up from her patient to him. “This is not good, you understand?”

He nodded, and refrained from asking what degree of "not good" she was referring to. All he could do was pray Juan would soon reach the village he'd mentioned and when he did, it would not be too late for Honor.

BOOK: Vidal's Honor
4.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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