The regency romances, p.102
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       The Regency Romances, p.102

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Roddy opened her eyes again. Another pair, empty blue, stared into hers and through her. From his position several feet away, Senach smiled. The world seemed to right itself. Roddy drew her shoulder blades together and yawned. She shifted and sighed and laid her cheek against rough wool. For a moment, it was enough to know that the firm chest beneath her belonged to her husband.

  She drowsed safely in his arms, listening to morning sounds. Somewhere in the distance a cow was lowing, and choughs called and sea gulls mewed, circling closer by. After a while she lifted her head and looked around.

  They were in a broad place behind a low wall, very close, it seemed, to the sky. To both sides stretched a parapet that fell away to a great depth, forming a huge, sheer-walled rectangle of stone beneath them. The wild countryside lay in a sweep of olive-green and silver all around. Three stories below she could see the militia captain sprawled on the ruin’s broken floor.

  As they watched he dragged himself onto his elbows. Roddy frowned as memory began to return to her. She felt a little twinge of fear as she realized that once again she was alone in her mind; that neither Senach nor Faelan nor the soldier below was open to her talent.

  That had not been true the night before. It had been the overwhelming power of her gift that had dragged her down with the captain. She blinked, staring at the officer’s red coat as he sat up and looked around groggily.

  “You drugged him,” she said.

  Faelan’s hand came over her mouth with an impact that rocked her head backward. “Be still,” he breathed harshly into her ear.

  Roddy nodded, and he slowly released her. Senach remained gazing into empty air, with that seraphic smile on his brown and wrinkled face.

  She could guess the soldier’s confusion, the sensation of waking in an unfamiliar, unexpected place. Early sun warmed the cracked marble where specters had danced; a chough landed on a broad, bare windowsill and sidled along it, fluffing glossy black plumage with a coarse cry.

  The captain had lost consciousness in a nightmare. He woke to morning peace and sunlight that mocked such macabre dreams.

  It took him a long time to stand up. When he did, he tottered and fell back to one knee. He gathered himself and tried again, successfully this time. From their hiding place high above, Roddy watched with gradually warming sympathy as he blinked in confusion and cast a despairing look around. She saw him look down at his feet and then up at the tall, ruined walls. Faelan’s arms flexed just slightly as the man’s bleary gaze passed over their hiding place.

  In time, something like reason seemed to direct the captain’s movements. He began to look more closely around the floor. They could still see him after he stumbled out the great arched door, down on his knees in the overgrown drive.

  “Looking for wheel marks,” Faelan whispered into her hair. “He’ll only find his own horse’s prints—three hooves shod and the near fore missing.”

  She looked up, a question in her eyes, and he ruffled her disarranged curls.

  “Success for our hero, little girl. There was a signal fire on the pass just before dawn. Geoff’s guns made it across.”

  Finally, with a weary and baffled set to the shoulders beneath the red coat, the officer stood straight and rubbed his palms across his face, and then began the long hike down the hill toward the sea.

  For many minutes after he had gone, no one spoke. At last, when Roddy thought she could hold back her questions no longer, Faelan’s hold on her loosened. He pushed her back and gently kneaded the nape of her neck with his thumbs.

  “Stretch the knots out, my love,” he advised. “We’ll break our fast on the way.”

  It was an appropriate introduction to her husband’s estate, Roddy thought wryly. A day of fog, a night of enchantment, and then a week spent camping out like savages under the shadow of mountain crags. When finally the three scruffy hobbies clipped into Killarney, she looked back at the mist-crowned cliffs and valleys with relief and vast regret.

  They were beautiful, with a beauty that was an ache in the mind. She held them to her heart, those days with Faelan among the moody peaks: some tranquil with the mobile, melting mists; some grim with blue storm and bare rock. She had seen the land that her husband loved as she never could have from the well-sprung coach that carried her on her second, official, entry.

  This second trip held none of the mystery of the first. “English,” Faelan said of their mode of travel as they settled in under soft wool rugs. Which meant, Roddy began to understand, comfortable, efficient, and insulated. The mountains and bays were scenery, lovely subjects for a lady’s watercolor that flowed past too quickly. The militia was respectful, unsuspicious—a mere pause on the road in which Roddy was allowed to venture forth from the carriage under a soldier’s protection to view several small antiquities: a souterrain, a pillar stone, and a few rocks said to be early tombs.

  Far above them on the mountainside she could see the dark outline of the great, ruined mansion. Faelan, strolling behind the anxious young militiaman who guided her among the rocks, seemed to take no notice of it.

  Roddy wondered what had become of the captain who’d gone to the fairy ball.

  “Why, look at that,” she said, in a breathless, overblown imitation of a new bride. “My lord, is that the house?”

  Faelan settled back against a boulder. “What’s left of it,” he said with a teasing smile. “I’ll build you another posthaste, my dear.”

  “We had a fine scare a sennight past.” The young soldier looked quickly at Roddy, eager to tell the tale, but torn between impressing her with the story and frightening a delicate lady.

  “What was that?” Faelan asked as he pulled a snuffbox from his pocket and took an idle pinch. Roddy frowned at the tiny enameled box. She’d never seen Faelan take snuff before.

  The question was encouragement enough for the soldier. “Lost three men, sir,” he said importantly. “Well, two. Not from my company, m’lord, no, sir. ’Twas the Fifth; a captain and his lieutenants went up to investigate some lights in the hills, m’lord—on account of all the smuggling in these parts, don’t you know. Not that Your Lordship would be apprehensive to them doin’s, oh, no. But like that; there was some of their men as wouldn’t go with ’em.” He stopped, suddenly realizing that this refusal of duty hardly reflected well on the militia, and decided to concentrate on the ghostly aspects of the story. “Bein’ ’twas November Eve an’ all,” he said, lowering his voice to emphasize the drama. “’Twas a wee bit eerie, do you see? There were talk o’ ghosts, and a carriage, real as you or me, that run through camp like the divil out o’ hell was pursuin’ it. I didn’t see that; I don’t know as I believe that part, but I was there when they brung in that lieutenant’s body, an’ that was after bein’ real enough, beggin’ your pardon, m’lady. An’ the captain, he come draggin’ in, and he’d run plain mad—talkin’ ghosties and white ladies an’ such.” The young soldier drew a breath, and said more heartily, “Colonel Burns—he put a stop to that. He sent his man downcountry quick. ’Twas makin’ some o’ the lads jumpy, do you see. Not me. I’m from Castlebar. But some of them as is thick with the local lads, they said ’twas the fairies. They said that mad captain was after describin’ the king of ’em himself, an’ the lady all in white his beauteous queen that he’d stole from her bed an’ left a log in her place.”

  “Fairies,” Faelan said. “Good God.”

  The militiaman laughed, a sound that did not quite cover his own uneasiness. “Oh, aye, m’lord. Oh, aye.”

  Faelan played with the enameled box. He slanted a look toward Roddy. “Do you have any more questions, Lady Iveragh?”

  “No,” she said slowly. “No, my lord.”

  He straightened, tall and easy, his dark elegance a sharp contrast to the fresh-faced militiaman from Castlebar. The soldier was preparing to offer his escort when Faelan stepped casually in front of him and took Roddy’s arm for their return to the carriage.

  A few miles past the militia camp, the n
ew road ended. White-haired and patient, Senach stood waiting with a pair of fine hunters to carry them over the old track that mounted the forbidding hill ahead.

  Roddy found herself uncomfortable. In the daylight, Senach seemed no more than an old, old man, but still he eluded and somehow seemed to interfere with her gift, drawing all consciousness into his silence. She did not want to meet his eyes, sightless though they seemed to be. He helped Roddy to mount, and brushed her hand with his feathery fingers.

  “Ye cain’t hear me, can ye, my lady? ’Tis no matter,” he said softly. “’Tis a wee thing.”

  Roddy jerked her fingers away. “What do you mean?” she asked sharply.

  “Ye know. Ye know me meanin’, my lady Lassar.” He patted her dappled gelding, and the animal bent to nuzzle his shoulder. “Remember the horses.”

  A peculiar panic rose in her, a fear of something she could not name. She looked up and saw Faelan and his mount already opening distance between them. “I don’t—” She looked again at Senach, and his blank eyes caught hers for an instant that was an eternity.

  She broke away. “Nonsense,” she exclaimed. “Nonsense.” She drove her heels into the gray’s sides.

  “Remember the horses,” Senach called after, and the words lingered in the ocean air like an ancient, mocking curse.

  She and Faelan came to the unpretentious slate-roofed house of their temporary hosts not long before sunset. Hidden beyond the great hill from the incursion of the new road, Doire Fhionain, the O’Connell family home, emanated welcoming candlelight and the sharp smell of burning peat.

  It seemed a very human place amidst the wilds. The door opened the moment they rode into the yard, spilling light into the cool evening air, and a man strode out, tall—powdered and distinguished, like her father. He came directly to Roddy and reached to help her from her mount.

  “Our fairy queen,” he said grandly. He set her on the ground, and looked down his long nose at her. “Welcome, welcome, brave child. This villain has dragged you through half the county, has he not? Well, you’ve come to the right place now. Come in, then. Get you down, Iveragh, and come inside.”

  Three hours later, she sat at a long table laden with bacon and fowls and cabbage, with a large roast turkey on one side and a leg of mutton on the other. Boiled salmon, boiled cod, lobster, peas, potatoes…she closed her eyes, unwilling to take another bite.

  The grand old matron at the foot of the table noticed the tiny gesture on the instant. Maire O’Connell raised her querulous voice and informed her son and the rest of the large company that it was time for a song.

  In a great shuffle and thumping of chairs, they gathered around the fire at one end of the room. Roddy sat in the chair she was offered, keeping her eyes cast down. Her gift was overly sensitive, throbbing, caught in a confusion of Gaelic and English. Hospitality and distrust swirled around and eluded her. She could not tell who thought what, or why.

  The tall man who’d greeted her thrust a glass of the fruity dinner wine into her hand as someone began plucking random notes on the huge harp in the corner. Maurice, the tall man’s name was. He smiled often. She noted, uneasily, that he was less glad to see Faelan than outward appearances indicated.

  It wasn’t a concrete thing: more caution than rooted dislike. No one was quite certain of this prodigal son. The divisions in Irish society began to sink into Roddy’s consciousness. Catholic, this family was. It radiated from them—a creed, a way of life, as much as a religion. They began to sing songs and tell stories in Irish while proud, sharp-witted Maire guided the talk, gathering her family around her.

  Roddy and Faelan sat alone amid the company. English. Landlords. There were older, darker memories of Faelan in Maire’s and Maurice’s minds. They remembered his father; remembered his death. They looked at Faelan and wondered, trying to match the boy to the man.

  The others just looked, never having known the boy.

  Roddy picked one fact out of the muddle of curiosity and Irish song. Faelan’s father had been Catholic, too.

  Which seemed an odd thing. A very odd thing.

  The songs went soft and haunting. Roddy sat in her chair, held straight by will alone. Every muscle in her back cried out from the long ride in carriage and saddle. She closed her eyes and let the music fill her with its plaintive beauty. Behind her eyelids, a dream took shape—a lady in the moonlight, whose face was made of winter stars.

  “Little girl.” Faelan’s voice was warm at her ear. She opened her eyes to find his hand on her shoulder. “You’re exhausted. Go with Senach.”

  Roddy sat up with a start. “Senach—”

  Faelan was making her apologies and pulling her bodily to her feet. He seemed to interpret her drawing back as simple weariness. When she saw Senach waiting at the door and began to protest, Faelan lifted her and carried her out in front of everyone, up the stairs behind the old man’s measured steps. Faelan set her down at the top of the stairs and laid her hand in Senach’s cool, thin palm. “Go on to bed. I’ll be along when I can.”

  “But…” She trailed off, finding no words to express her fear. Faelan was halfway down the stairs when she called his name.

  He turned, a touch of impatience in the set of his mouth. “What is it?”

  Senach’s fingers moved like spiders in her hand. She jerked it away. “Wait! I—Can’t you come now?”

  His frown told her no. “We’re guests here, Roddy.”

  “I’ll come back down, too.” She took a step toward him.

  “Go to bed,” he said. “You look ready to fall down.”

  “Faelan.” It was a plea, a cry for help. “Don’t leave me.”

  He looked baffled. After a moment, he climbed the stairs and took her hand. “What is it, little girl? Lord, you’re shaking like death.” His arm came suddenly around her shoulder and he spread his palm across her forehead. “Pray God—No, you don’t feel warm. Perhaps you ate something…”

  She leaned against him. “Don’t leave me,” she whispered into his coat. “Don’t leave me with Senach.”

  She felt his surprise in the tightening of his body. “Whatever are you talking about?” He put her away from him, and reached again to join her hand with Senach’s.

  In spite of herself, she flinched. “He’s blind,” she whispered. It was all she could say to explain her fear. He was blind, and yet he could see, and he sucked her talent away, down into a black vortex of silence.

  Faelan looked into her face, and suddenly his mouth went hard. “You hold a good man’s disability against him?” he asked roughly. “You think he can’t take care of you, as well as I ever could? Go on, Roddy. You disappoint me.” He glanced at Senach, still standing with a slight smile on his ancient face, as if nothing they said touched him. “You disappoint me, little girl.”

  With that, he turned away from her, and did not look back as he thudded down the wooden stairs and disappeared into the parlor.

  Roddy stood still, frozen in misery and terror. When Senach touched her again, she clenched her teeth together to endure it.

  “Ye might be freein’ him,” Senach said. “Ye might be.”

  “What?” Roddy said uncertainly.

  “Ye could know him, if ye would do it. But ye be fearin’. Him and me.”

  His light contact burned into her arm. She was afraid to look up, afraid to meet his empty eyes. “I don’t…I don’t know what you mean.”

  “Oh, aye, child. Ye do know it. I’ll be tellin’ ye till ye listen.” He stroked the back of her hand.

  “I don’t like this,” she said brokenly. Tears of strain and agony blurred her vision.

  “No. Ye won’t look to me, like the folk dursn’t look straight at you all your life. Folk know the truth. What they hear in their hearts, they dursn’t say aloud. They look the other way, they do. But I be thinkin’ ye’ve known all that.”

  “Please,” she said. “Please leave me alone.”

  “Ah. Ah. Leave ye alone, will I? Leave ye in the dark? ’T
would hurt me to do it, an’ ye alone there, all afeared.”

  His hand closed lightly around her arm, and he led her into the dark hall. They came to a door; without fumbling, he found the knob and opened it. Inside, a single candle illuminated the curtained bed and a fine Oriental rug.

  Roddy stepped quickly inside. She wanted to fling the door shut in Senach’s face, but from somewhere came a modicum of politeness. She turned, and mumbled a hasty good night.

  “God bless,” Senach said. “Trust be the key.”

  He closed the door.

  Roddy stared at the wood and listened to his light steps down the hall. The man who knew her secret. The man who shared her talent. Who drank her gift and left her empty and alone.

  Her soul was bared and open to another’s mind. It was a fearful thing to comprehend.

  Chapter 15

  In the dining room the breakfast was laid of remnants from the night before: minced turkey and warm potatoes on the side table, and the men sitting down to a dram before their boiled eggs.

  Faelan sat in his earlier place one chair down from Maurice. There was a touch of coolness in her husband’s greeting when Roddy joined him there, but no one noticed except herself. If her husband had come to her bed and gone the night before, she never knew it. The talk was of wine and customs men, and a shipment expected that night in the little bay of Derrynane. She remembered Faelan, with a teasing glint in his eye, informing her before they’d arrived that their hosts were in the import-export business.

  It dawned on her, belatedly, that this genteel, comfortable family were smugglers by profession.

  “You’ve put us to shame now, Iveragh, with your grand fairy ball,” Maurice complained. He spoke with good nature, but there was a question, a delicate probing, in his next words. “And a fine diversion it was, but a terrible waste, to my mind. To be movin’ a lot of cold steel when I had a good cache of tobacco and spirits that was wanted by the lads in Cork a wee bit more than guns.”

  Faelan finished off his dram. “The bluff is yours to use again. Make it an annual affair.” He smiled briefly at his host over the tiny glass. “You needn’t worry that I’m going into competition.”

 

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