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Authors: Sherry Gloag

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BOOK: Vidal's Honor
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* * * *

The room he carried her into was small, low-ceilinged and as neat and clean as a pin, and the woman's gnarled face creased in concern when she spied his burden. After a rapid burst of Spanish, too quick for him to follow, Vidal looked to Juan for guidance.

“She asks you to lay Mrs. Beaumont on the bed.” He indicated a small cot hidden by the shadows of the far wall. “I must tell you, she thinks you are Mrs. Beaumont's husband.”

“What?” Vidal sprang upright when he'd laid her down. “Why would she think that?”

“You are together, and you hold her intimately, like a lover. Also, I told her,” he finished without a trace of apology.

“Why on earth did you do that?”

“You are among people who believe, when a man holds a woman as you do, it is because you are married. If I said otherwise, they'd assume she is your whore. While they'd not withhold their help, they wouldn't offer you any respect.”

“I see.” What else could he say? Although he found it hard to understand the narrow mindset of these villagers, he still appreciated them and once away from here, who would know any different.

“Come.” The crone's accented English snapped him back to the immediate situation. “I will need your help to remove her clothes. They are so wet and muddy I cannot do it on my own.” She held up hands, crippled and twisted.

Consuela stepped forward. “I will help you.” she waved her hand in his direction. “Concern makes him stupid. This is woman's work and the men will be in the way. Let him go with Juan.”

Concern? No, Vidal thought, not just concern. If Honor died, he'd have lost the two most precious people in his life within a matter of weeks, and he didn't think he'd be able to stand it. Stepping back, he offered a grateful smile to Consuela, and left the room with Juan at his heels.

“We can't stay here too long,” Juan said the moment they'd moved away from the cluster of cottages.

“We can't leave until Lady Beaumont improves.”

“There's no option. If those who trailed us to the river discover us here, the fate of the villagers will be catastrophic.”

“You think they will find us that quickly?” Fury at circumstances, at his own inability to maintain control, chewed at his gut. “If you think that, why wade through the river for so many hours to supposedly cover our tracks?”

“But for your woman, we would still be wading along the river. These are my people, and by coming here I have put them in danger. I tell you, we will not stay any longer than is essential.” Juan strode away without waiting for anything Vidal might have said.

Casting about him for a trail to walk off his frustration, Vidal watched Juan enter a cottage on the other side of the village. It didn't help that he understood and appreciated the Spaniard's concerns. The path he chose broke off into three separate choices. One continued along the side of the hill, another fell away steeply and disappeared into thick woodland, and the third, his choice, rose above the village and gave him an uninterrupted view of the activities below and the wide expanse of scenery lower down the slope.

Sunlight glinted on something bright, and it took him a few moments to follow the route of the river they'd used as a watery road. He scanned the scenery below and decided it amounted to nothing more than sunlight glinting off the river's surface and satisfied himself that no one else was urging their animals along it. But, he wondered, what about the dense woodland below? An army could successfully conceal itself in there for days without detection. A small group of men would have no problem in approaching the village unnoticed until too late.

Was Juan right to insist they move on as quickly as possible? He couldn't deny it. Steam rose from his wet breeches, and the warmth of the sun released the tension in his back. What would Consuela say to their hostess? Had she and Juan concocted a plan? If so why did the Spaniard storm off without saying something when they left Honor to the women's ministrations? And just how long could they remain here without endangering the locals?

Someone left the cottage Juan had visited and disappeared from view. Wisps of white smoke drifted on a gentle breeze. Looking around, Vidal found it hard to imagine the war-torn depravity to the south of this place. A bird shrieked close by, followed by another. Vidal rose and looked about him, picking out a nearby tree he could climb if the sound of invasion came any closer.

“Vidal?” Juan's voice reached him seconds before the man stepped into the clearing. “Mrs. Beaumont is awake and calling for you. Well, for someone called Devlin. You must come quickly, or our deception will be discovered.”

* * * *

“Devlin, I want Devlin.”

Her pitiful cries reached him as he stepped into the sickroom. Vidal looked round for Consuela and wondered where she'd gone.

“Thank goodness you are here.” The Spanish crone took his hand and dragged him across the room. “She grieves for you, you must talk to her.”

After a level look at Juan, Vidal shook his head.

“Devlin was her brother and died recently. They were close and she still misses him. I will do what I can to calm her down.” Had Juan revealed their true identities to these people? It would make it easier for their hunters if he had. But then he'd become embroiled, so hopefully not. Not knowing Juan's motives for helping them at all, let alone this far, didn't help.

The woman, Maria, Juan told him later, made sympathetic clicking noises as she left the room.

He settled on the edge of the bed and took Honor's hand in his. They'd pulled the sheets up nearly to her chin but left her bare shoulders exposed. He yearned to caress her creamy skin. Unlike her weather-beaten face, turned a soft gold from the sun, her shoulders and arms were almost luminous. Was it her illness that made the veins so distinct? He hoped so, for he couldn't remember seeing anything similar.

Since Honor's marriage to his best friend, Vidal had acquired the reputation of a rake and the sight of her translucent skin was unusual. A sound from the other side of the door alerted him to the possibility of his hostess eavesdropping on his entreaties.

“Honor, can you hear me? Devlin is not here —“What could he say? Telling her he was never coming back wouldn't inspire her to make a quick recovery.

“Open your eyes and look at me.”

Relief poured through him when the lightest twitch of her finger confirmed she could respond, but he had no way of knowing whether she understood his words. He looked at the mountains beyond the window. They seemed so close but he knew they were still days away. Would they make it? And if they did, what were their chances of crossing France undetected? When he looked back, Honor was staring up at him in puzzlement.

“What are you doing here, Vidal? Where is Devlin? I want Devlin.” A tear seeped from the side of one of her eyes and tracked its way down her cheek, vanishing into the rough cotton-covered pillow.

“He is with Wellington and can't come right now. He asked me to stay with you until Wellington gives him leave.”

“Why has he left me behind? I always travel with Devlin.”

How to answer her? The truth wasn't an option and if he had an audience on the other side of the door, it would kill them all.

“My dear, he told me how upset you'd be when you discovered he'd gone on without you, but felt it was best you return to your husband while he is on leave.”

He used the only tools of silent communication available to him, and when she opened her mouth to reply, he pressed a gentle finger across her lips, and with his other hand squeezed hers gently. When she looked at him, really looked at him, he gave a little shake of his head and saw her eyes widen in understanding, and recognised the instant her memories flooded back. The sound of footsteps galvanised him into action so that when she let out a groan, he leaned down and kissed her hard on her mouth.

While his body clamoured for more, he managed to keep a tight rein on his brain. This was neither the time nor the place to let his emotions take over. Honor was the only woman he'd ever love, and the only woman he'd have to deny.

“How is she?” The contempt in Juan's eyes rankled.

“Oh! It's you. I thought the woman was coming back.”

Juan's scorn changed to speculation.

“You said you told her we were married, and yet she was calling out for Devlin. I had to make your story look real.”

Keeping Honor's hand in his, Vidal rose from the bed. “Do you remember Juan?” he asked her. When she nodded he stroked his thumb across the back of her hand. “How you are feeling?”

“Not good, but a lot better, if that makes sense.” She tried for a grin and settled for a choked laugh.

“We think you were stung by a scorpion. My aunt has been treating you and says you will be better tomorrow.” Juan came forward to stand at Vidal's side. “Do you think you will be well enough to travel?”

The urgency in the other man's voice when he looked at Honor rang in the air. It seemed sick as she was, she'd heard it too for she bit her lip and nodded.

“It is too soon.” The words escaped before Vidal could bite them back.

“Maybe,” Juan acknowledged, “but we can't stay. We will get more supplies and medicine at the next village and Tia will give us enough to keep Mrs. Beaumont fit enough for the next stage of our journey.”

 

Chapter Seven

 

“Stay here.” Juan turned his mount to block the path then called to Vidal. “We leave the women here and approach the village alone.”

Three days after leaving her sickbed, Honor, still pale and unusually quiet, didn't protest at Juan's command. The day after they waved goodbye to his aunt, they'd stopped at another village long enough to replenish supplies, visiting a woman who'd handed over a bottle of green liquid and two paper pouches of powder. Honor took them without complaint although her expression told Vidal they tasted vile.

“Wouldn't it be better if we all went in together?” The thought of the women alone didn't sit well with him until Juan pointed toward the hamlet where dark grey smoke curled upwards.

“No, it's better they stay here. We go alone and see if there is any food left.”

One glance at Honor's ashen face revealed she understood the reason for the black plume over the village, as did Consuela.

With a grim nod Vidal urged his mule forward; after all, he'd seen how the last three days of trek so soon after her illness had taken its toll on Honor. “Stay out of sight, for we don't know how long it is since the French were here.”

“It is possible they may still be in the village. Unlikely,” Juan added, “but possible.”

“If they have pickets on the watch, do you think they have seen our approach?” Honor shifted her position. After three full days in the saddle with few stops for rest or relief, she swore every limb in her body ached.

After a quick check of the overcast sky, Vidal pulled out his spyglass and searched the area ahead. “I don't see any movement,” he said, before he passed it to Juan.

“No, I agree, it seems deserted, but we cannot take risks. The women…” he trailed off when Consuela groaned.

“I am sorry to upset you, but it is not safe for you to come with us.”

“It is no safer for us to stay here.” Consuela glared at her countryman. “You think we will faint at what may be up there?” Pointing to the village, she looked in Honor's direction. “Mrs. Beaumont has followed the drum, do you suppose she has not seen evidence of the French atrocities? Did I not tell you I watched them sack my own village? Do not be absurd. If you don't want us to come with you, say so, but do not treat us like imbeciles.”

She spurred her mount over to stand in front of Juan. “You want to go? Go then. We wait for you here.” With a toss of her head she turned her mule and rode back to where Honor watched.

“Come.” Consuela grabbed Honor's reins and hauled her mule to the side of the road.

“She is right,” Vidal agreed when Honor cast a frantic look in his direction. “We will be as quick as possible.”

* * * *

The wind, a silent conspirator, carried the stench of death towards them as they approached the devastated compound.

In all his years in Portugal and at Whitehall, Vidal had never witnessed such horror. "
Pillage and burn
,"
Dev had written in one of his letters. "
Wherever they go, the French leave nothing behind
."

“We can't bring the women through here.” With a hand to his nose, Vidal stared at the destruction around him. The whole place had burned. Not a house, shed or animal pen remained intact. The bodies of the village men and boys, some charred, others cut to pieces, littered the village square. “While they may have witnessed such scenes,” he added when a near-by roof fell in, and burning timbers shot sparks high into the air. “It is more reason to keep them away from here.”

“I not only agree, but insist we divert from this road and head for the woods at the foot of the hills. They may be our only form of cover.”

“Don't you think the French will post pickets in them?” Vidal urged his mule forward and made for what he imagined was once the local store. He didn't expect to find anything useful within, but hoped the marauding army had missed something.

Juan shook his head. “Your Earl of Wellington has moved out of Madrid, and Marmont has taken his divisions west after his defeat at Salamanca. The perpetrators of this outrage are not part of any army manoeuvring for position. Do you notice any evidence of any heavy artillery wagons, or even a normal baggage train passing this way?” Juan stared at the bodies littering the square. “No, my friend, these are not regular troops. They are either cut off from the rest of their troops or they are deserters. And if the latter, there are several of them.” He cast a wide arc with his arm. “You need numbers to cause such depravity. And it is too much for the two of us to even attempt to give these people the decent burials they deserve.”

With a string of curses Juan dug his heels into his mule's flanks and crossed the square, flung himself from the saddle, and entered the burnt-out shell of the little church.

Dismounting, Vidal eased open the shattered door to the store. A basket, teetering on the edge of a shelf, wobbled and crashed to the ground. In the eerie silence it reminded Vidal of canon fire, and he waited until the unnatural stillness persuaded him it was safe to step into the building.

BOOK: Vidal's Honor
4.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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