Uncertain magic, p.1
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       Uncertain Magic, p.1

           Laura Kinsale
Uncertain Magic

  Uncertain Magic

  Laura Kinsale

  Copyright © 1987, 2010 Hedgehog, Inc.

  Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.


  Chapter 1

  Newmarket Heath, 1797

  Roderica Delamore clutched hard at the billowing silk folds of her father’s pavilion as the horses came pounding down the turf. The blood-bay stallion was in the lead, a flash of living fire, pulling away from the challenger with each ground-eating stride as the crowd’s rumble gathered to a piercing howl. The noise and emotion rose up around Roddy like a breaking wave, beating at her, drowning her, crushing the barriers that she’d built in her mind. Her cursed gift laid her open to everything, the sound, the sight, the combined aggression and excitement of ten thousand screaming spectators. The intensity of emotion threatened to overwhelm her, and she tore the silk with her twisting fingers as she sought madly for some way to block it out.

  Her parents had been right—she should never have come. She should have stayed home on the quiet Yorkshire estate where her father raised his blooded running stock, safe in the country solitude. She was not ready for this; she’d had no concept of what it would be like to suffer the full force of her talent in the grip of a hysterical crowd. In desperation she narrowed her concentration to the animals, pushing away the tide of human feeling with terrific effort.

  The trick worked. The impact of the crowd faded and changed, becoming a background roar of sound as Roddy let herself be sucked into the mind of the stallion in the lead, the bright bay, whose will and power filled her like a flood of molten fire. Her world became the world of the racehorse: the taste of copper and foam, the smell of sweat and crushed grass and hot wind; stretching, seeking, ears flicked back to the thunder of the challenger, eyes focused on the terrain ahead; reaching and reaching and reaching forward— The sudden pain struck her as if it were her own. It shot down the stallion’s left foreleg, and he broke stride for one fraction of a second, sending the jockey’s live weight forward onto the horse’s shoulders. The whip flashed, not hitting, but the brandishment was enough. The stallion sprang ahead. The pain increased. It grew, spreading across the animal’s chest and striking into his neck and right leg. Still he ran, defying it, his stallion’s mind set in aggression and pride—stay ahead, stay ahead, damn the pain—while Roddy pressed her fists to her mouth and bit down until her knuckles bled with vicarious agony.

  In a back corner of her mind she was aware of fear, a human dread of the moment when the great beast would collapse and take down his jockey and the challenger behind in a savage tangle of flesh and hooves. She’d felt this kind of pain before, at home, when an exhausted gelding had collapsed of heart failure after a twenty-mile race between parish steeples. It was death, close and dreadful, and yet the stallion drove on, opening the lead. His stride lengthened, his black-tipped legs devouring turf like the rhythmic spokes of a giant wheel. As he neared the finish, the crowd noise rose to a crescendo. The pair flashed by Roddy. She was screaming, too, hardly aware of the tears that streamed down her cheeks for the animal’s pain and courage, for the will that carried him past the finish a full length ahead of his rival, for the spirit that made him toss his head and fight the restraining hand of his jockey when every single step was anguish. She broke from her hiding place in the pavilion, in the rough stableboy’s clothes and the cap she’d worn to conceal her bright blond curls, and pushed with unfeminine force through the mob that closed in on the victor.

  She reached the stallion just as the silk-clad jockey swung off. A groom ran forward to take the puffing animal’s bridle; his hand clashed with Roddy’s as they both lunged. Roddy’s fingers closed first and she tore the reins away.

  “Yo!” he shouted amid the din, and made a move to yank them back.

  Roddy screamed, “Don’t move him!” forgetting entirely she was supposed to be a boy. “He’ll die if you move him now!”

  “Are ye crazed?” the groom cried. Roddy stumbled under his shove, then gritted her teeth and held her ground.

  The stallion stood still beside her, awash in pain. He lowered his head, giving in to weakness for the first time, and at that motion the protests of the groom faded momentarily. But the man’s pride was aroused now, his authority questioned. Roddy felt the stallion begin to tremble in delayed reaction. The groom made another grab for the reins. He captured them, pushing Roddy aside as he led the horse forward.

  The stallion faltered, and went to his knees. All around, a dismayed cry flew up, and then a cheer as the horse clambered back to all fours. Roddy gave the groom a savage look. She felt the man’s antagonism, sharp and quick as a stabbing knife within the wash of emotion from the crowd. She knew before he did it that he was going to drag the horse forward again. “Damn you! Don’t—” she shouted, and found herself cut short by another voice that sliced across the noise.

  “Leave it, Patrick. Let him stand.”

  Roddy stiffened, unused to being taken by surprise. She did not turn toward the newcomer—that was habit—but opened her special gift to his mind, expecting to pluck out a name and identity before she even saw his face.

  Instead, she found only blankness.

  That jolted her. She focused her gift more sharply. But the other remained a silence, a void, as disconcerting as the space where a newly lost tooth should have been.

  A bubble of panic rose to her throat. For the first time in her life, Roddy felt herself reaching out instead of turning away, probing for emotion or thought instead of rejecting it. When finally she turned, it was as if she could not quite see the man beside her; only a vague figure, tall and elegant in a black coat and doeskin breeches. She spared a single glance up into his face.

  His features came into focus with a sudden, wrenching clarity. He stood quite still amid the clamor, watching her intently, his eyes a startling blue beneath thick black lashes—light against dark, like the bright evening sky behind stark silhouettes. The expression on his fiercely carved face was closed, set in lines impossible to read. She blinked stupidly and gaped, like a person set down in a foreign country, unable to cope with an unknown tongue.

  The silence spread to the watching throng, the real silence, the one her ears heard instead of her mind. Shouts and talk faded into hush. And in the crowd-thoughts behind the silence she found a name.

  Her eyes widened. She looked quickly toward the stranger from under her lashes.

  Saints preserve us.

  Iveragh. The Devil Earl of Ireland.

  She found herself in deeper water than she’d wanted. A lot deeper. She should have guessed. Oh, God, how had she not guessed? He owned the beast, for the Lord’s sake. Rumor had been rife that the horse would go for a fortune to Lord Derby or the Duke of Grafton if it won today.

  Roddy stole another look. The man could have been Satan himself, with his hell-black hair and burning blue eyes. Every improbable tale of the Devil Earl took on believability: if anyone could be a blackmailer and a thief and a pitiless corrupter of innocent maids, this was surely the man.

  People moved. The crowd shuffled and shifted, and opened way again with that instinct they had for a fine coat and a gentleman’s air. She knew the newcomer this time—Lord Derby himself, eager to lay his claim to the horse.

  He hailed Iveragh and pumped his hand, congratulations on the win. “We’ll call this an agreement.” Derby pumped harder, looking sillier than he knew against Iveragh’s trenchant silence. The excited lord babbled something about the next heat, and Roddy swung round in dismay. “Don’t race him again! You musn’t—”

  “Gor—” The groom shoved her roughly. “Mind yer business, ye little bastard. The horse ’twere never better. Get on wi’ ye.”

  Roddy thrust his hands away w
ith hot indignation, remembering too late that she could hardly be taken for a lady of quality just now. She turned again to Iveragh—a look up to those uninterpretable blue eyes as steady as she could make it, which wasn’t very. From somewhere she still had enough sense left to use her best country accents. “He ain’t fit, m’lor’. He’s sick. ’Twill kill him to run again. I’ve felt—” She stopped herself, knowing that these strangers would never believe in the talent that was taken for granted in her father’s stable. “I’ve seen this before. ’Tis his heart, m’lor’.”

  “Sick, is it?” The groom moved a step. “Sick be damned, ye bleedin’—” Roddy felt his intention a moment before the action and stiffened—fool, fool, when she should have ducked—and the cracking blow took her across the face and sent her reeling into the solid wall of the earl’s chest.

  He caught her arms in a painful grip, but Roddy was too stunned by the bruising ache in her jaw to take more than passing notice. She hung a hazy moment in Iveragh’s arms, then struggled up and tore herself free, going at the groom with all the fury of a wildcat, using nails and teeth and all the curses she had ever learned from her four rough-and-tumble brothers. She didn’t bother to throw punches with only her puny weight behind them, but used her talent shamelessly, outguessing, dodging and biting and striking openhanded with ruthless efficiency, drawing blood more than once before she swung her leg up hard and kicked, catching the man squarely in the groin. He yelped and staggered back, bent double, and Roddy drank in his pain with satisfaction as the hisses and cheers rose up around them.

  The stallion stood with his eyes rolling wildly. She went to his head to murmur reassurance. The animal’s attack had subsided, but beneath the surface there was still a fatal weakness. If retired to pasture, he might survive. Another race would destroy him.

  With an effort, she blocked out the mixed antagonism and amazement that flowed from the crowd and turned a defiant look on the unreadable face of Iveragh, “He hit me first, m’lor’.”

  The earl looked at her with his strange blue eyes. Roddy held the gaze and then faltered, dropping her lashes as a faint smile curved his lips.

  “Fight dirty, do you?”

  The words were soft, barely audible above the buzz of the spectators.

  “He hit me.” Roddy was on the defensive. “And he don’t care a whit ’bout ta beast.”

  “Heart trouble.” Lord Derby gave her a hard look. “Are you certain?”

  Roddy glanced at Iveragh, seeing nothing she could fathom in the earl’s dark face. The magnificent racing stallion was worth a king’s ransom as a performer and a stud, but as a retired and broken racehorse he was useless.

  “Yes, m’lor’,” she said hesitantly, addressing Derby, and half expecting the earl himself to punch her for ruining his sale.

  Derby turned to the man beside him. “We’ll talk again. Perhaps after the next heat.” He touched his hat brim. “Your servant, sir.” He strolled away into the crowd that parted to let him pass.

  Roddy was left to face the wrath of the Devil Earl alone.

  She took a deep breath and turned back to the stallion, offering her hand to his silky black muzzle. The crowd still pressed around them, fallen into a waiting silence that unnerved her even more, for she knew what they were expecting. What they thought she deserved.

  Cold-blooded murder.

  Which didn’t seem to be an unlikely event, Roddy thought morbidly, considering the reputation of Iveragh.

  “So.” His voice made her flinch with its chilly flatness. “Since you seem to have permanently disabled my groom, boy, perhaps you’ll take over for him.”

  She looked up in confusion, but the earl was already turning away. The crowd muttered. She glanced around at all those sullen male faces and found herself with no better choice than to take the stallion’s head and follow at a measured pace.

  Her cheek ached, a stinging numbness that she feared would go black and blue. To take her mind off it she kept alert to the horse’s condition. The spectators drifted along behind, still hopeful of a scene, but the earl only led Roddy and her charge up the treeless hill toward the long row of thatch-roofed sheds where the horses were temporarily stabled. She expected undergrooms to run out to their aid, but no one came. The earl gestured toward an empty loose box, and with a sweep of his glacial blue eyes warned off the crowd that had followed.

  “Untack him. His blanket’s there,” he said tonelessly.

  Roddy ducked her head. To take off the stallion’s saddle and bridle meant only one thing. He was scratching the horse from the next heat.

  A walkover. The stallion’s courageous win in the first heat was worth nothing, and now there would be a forfeit fee to pay, too, instead of the rich purse the horse should have won. She reached to obey the earl’s order, replacing the bridle with a halter and dragging off the heavily weighted saddle. It was all unthinking routine; years of training in her father’s stable: now that the stallion’s heart was steadier, she had to walk him to cool him out, stopping first to wet a sponge and squeeze a dribble of water into his nose and mouth. He stretched his lathered neck and stuck out his tongue, slurping at the thin stream.

  By the time she had walked him once up the length of the shed and back, the earl was gone. From here, the crowd at the track was only a rumble on the wind, the words of the crier indistinguishable as he called the next heat. Her gift brought her nothing but a confused wave of agitation.

  The tones of the distant voice changed. A shout of dismay went up from the mob.

  They had announced the stallion’s scratch.

  She pursed her lips and kept the horse walking. He had believed her, that saturnine stranger. He had taken her at her word. It was gratifying, and scary, and something else—something oddly warm.

  Trust, she thought, with a trace of wonder. Blind faith.

  The earl did not return to the stable. A trickle of on-lookers began to arrive, curious to see why the stallion had been pulled. Roddy ignored their questions. She led the horse into his box, drew water and tossed hay with mute precision. Then she posted herself at the door, assuming an expression of silent haughtiness, a stony glare that she was certain was worthy of the earl himself.

  It was Mark who came for her. Long after all the races were over and the spectators had dispersed, the familiar essence touched her mind: her second-oldest brother, red hair and redder temper, storming along the shed row toward her with murder in his thoughts. She cringed a little under the string of curses which ran through his mind when he saw her. The link between thought and words was so instantaneous that her family always spoke to her aloud, and Mark demanded in a furious voice, “What the holy devil are you doing here? Papa’s out of his wits.” He grabbed her arm and began to tow her along without ceremony, ignoring Roddy’s voluble protests.

  No one paid them any mind: a young gentleman with a ragtag, squealing stableboy by the ear. She went with Mark, half walking, half dragged, down the grassy hill to the gay row of grandstands and pavilions that lined the now-deserted track. She managed to get away from him long enough to straighten herself a little before she was marched forcibly into the crimson-and-gold tent where her father waited. Roddy began a quick apology, but her father silenced her with one stern look, a look that made her insides squeeze all sick and remorseful and scared as he dismissed Mark and yanked a curtain of silk across the door.

  “Young lady,” he hissed, the carefully arranged rolls of white hair at his temples quivering, “what d’you think you’re about, running all over the heath like some hoyden? I thought we had an agreement.”

  “Yes, Papa,” she said faintly. “I’m sorry.”

  “Sorry,” he snapped. “Sorry. If your mother knew—” He broke off, and frowned at her. “What happened to your face?”

  Roddy drew in a quavery breath at his thunderous expression. She thought of several cushioning lies, but she knew her brothers would have told the truth, and so she could do nothing less. “Someone hit me.”

bsp; “Hit you!” It was a blast of shock and fury. “Good God, who had the impudence—Iveragh, that son of Satan, was it he?” Her father made a precipitate move toward the door. “By the devil, I’ll kill him!”

  “Certainly it wasn’t, Papa,” Roddy cried, waving her hands in a feverish tamping flutter, because they wanted to grab hold of him and pull him back and she knew that wasn’t politic just now. “It was his groom. And I didn’t come off so badly after all…. I won the scrap.”

  “‘Won the scrap,’” her father echoed, letting the folds of silk that formed a door drop back into place. He covered his eyes. “Sweet Heaven have mercy, my daughter won a mill with Iveragh’s groom. If your mother knew—”

  “I’m sorry, Papa.” Roddy hung her head in misery. “I truly am.”

  He squared his shoulders under the thick pads of his frock coat, fidgeting with one blunt finger at the high collar points. “It’s my fault. I should never have allowed you to come, much less let you dress yourself in this—this stable garb. Where in God’s name was your sense, to go off with a scoundrel like Iveragh? Surely you could recognize what kind of man—” He stopped, reddening.

  Roddy bit her lip. “I know his reputation, Papa,” she said, and then blushed herself at her father’s disapproving frown. “You know I understand these things better than a—a normal girl would.”

  “Capital,” he said gruffly. “At nineteen, you’re an expert on rakes and roués. If your mother hears of this—”

  “You know she won’t,” Roddy said, and then added darkly, “If someone tells her, ’twill be a great deal too bad after all I’ve kept under the lid for Mark and the rest.”

  Her father cleared his throat in discomfort at that shaft. “Roddy. You’re a female. Your brothers’ conduct can hardly be held up as an example for your own.”

  The accumulated stresses of the day caught up with her at that, swelled and rolled and exploded. “Well—” she shouted, “what example shall I go by? Aunt Nell’s? Shall I lock myself away where I never meet a living soul and try to forget this accursed talent I was born with?” She sucked in a breath and clenched her hands together, paced to the silk partition and turned back savagely on her heel. “Or perhaps Great-aunt Jane would be a better pattern. She only killed herself. Who could blame her? She loved her husband, and he couldn’t bear to have her near him. I don’t blame him, either,” Roddy added bitterly. “What man could abide to have his mind an open book for his wife to read? To have her know every weakness, every fear, every secret that’s too dark even for confession? What marriage could stand the burden of this damned…gift?”

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