The regency romances, p.104
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       The Regency Romances, p.104

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “As you will,” Faelan said moderately. “We’ll fit the place out to your own taste, then.”

  “No.” Having taken a stand, Roddy clung to it. “I won’t live here, Faelan.”

  He had been contemplating the view beyond the windows; at that, he looked toward her. Only his bright, cold glance and the faint flaring of his nostrils betrayed any emotion at all.

  “I’m sure this discussion is quite unnecessary,” Mr. Willis said. “I confess—I had no notion that you intended to take up permanent residence. You’re welcome here for as long as you wish, of course; I’ve a house in Kenmare to which I can remove—”

  “Absolutely not. We won’t put you out of your home.” Roddy set her chin, in spite of the ice-blue warning in Faelan’s eyes. It was he who had insisted that she sit through this farce; let him find that she was not so docile a creature as he seemed to think. To be a willing party to this barbarousness…it was impossible.

  “You won’t live here, my lady?” Faelan asked politely. Freezingly.

  She took a breath. “No. Not even if Mr. Willis should remove.”

  “I’m sorry for it,” Faelan said. And that was all.

  Mr. Willis, trying to smooth the disagreement over, said placatingly, “No, no, the house is yours. I shall do quite well in Kenmare; it won’t inconvenience me in the slightest. And I’m sure you’ll be wanting to begin on something grander for yourselves.”

  “It appears my lady has her principles,” Faelan said. “We won’t be moving here, then. But I still expect you will vacate the house by Sunday.”

  “Your Lordship,” Mr. Willis said, with the smiling patience of a man speaking to a small and rather dense child. “I feel certain that after you’ve a chance to review any other offers, you’ll find this decision is precipitate.”

  “I don’t fear that.”

  Faelan’s certainty made Mr. Willis frown at him uneasily. “You don’t have a better treaty, Your Lordship?”

  “No.”

  Mr. Willis sat back in relief. “Then, sir, allow me to explain the local situation to you. The subtenants—their rents simply cannot be raised at this time. No Christian man could ask it. Any larger offer will cut directly into my own living, I fear, Your Lordship.”

  Faelan smiled. “Ah. We couldn’t have that, could we?”

  “I think you can sympathize with my position. It’s a simple matter of arithmetic. I’m sorry, Your Lordship, but you will not get a better offer.”

  “And I won’t move into this house,” Roddy said. “So there’s no need for this to continue, is there? Faelan, please. I’m sure Mr. Willis’ offer is quite fair, and we can find somewhere else to live—”

  “Oh, I intend to discuss that point with you, my lady,” Faelan said. “Never fear. But you’re right; there’s no need to go on with this conversation. My decision on the lease is final. The old lease fell in ten days ago, and that Mr. Willis remains here at all is on my sufferance. If he and his belongings are still here past Sunday next, he can expect a visit from the bailiff.”

  Chapter 16

  Faelan did not speak as they rode from the house. At the end of the drive, he turned west, away from the direction they had come onto an overgrown track that seemed to lead up into the very mountains themselves. It reminded Roddy of the paths they had taken after the fairy ball. But then Faelan’s face had been open and easy; he had pointed out landmarks and named each one; had told her stories of ancient kings and laughed when Roddy swatted her shaggy pony for trying to take a nip out of her hat.

  He wasn’t laughing now. His hands on his mount’s reins were unnaturally gentle and controlled, a sign, she feared, that an explosive temper was held in rigid check. He might not punish an innocent animal in his fury, but she had no certainty of what he might do to the blatantly guilty human party concerned.

  She didn’t speak, either, afraid to question their direction or intentions. If we’re going to evict Mr. Farrissy, she thought miserably, I believe I shall start to cry.

  They rode for a full hour in silence. Then, high in the hills, they descended suddenly into a brushy valley. She caught the first touch of unfamiliar minds at the same time she smelled the sharp tang of burning peat. It was a child’s raw hunger and whimpering that filled the wretched stone hut huddling at the side of the path, a baby, not more than a year old, whose incoherent unhappiness overwhelmed any other thought.

  Faelan halted and swung off his horse, greeting in her own language the black-swathed woman who came to the door. She looked at him and Roddy, her eyes red-rimmed from the smoke that wafted through the thatch and the open door, and crossed herself quickly. Faelan spoke again, and above the baby’s misery Roddy felt the unfamiliar words form a sharp image of the great ruined mansion in the woman’s head. She glanced from Faelan to Roddy. One moment Roddy was looking with her own eyes at Faelan’s profile, and the next she saw him as a stranger, an image as dark and frightening as the ghostly great house itself.

  Roddy’s own presence made it worse. She saw herself as the woman saw her: richly dressed, smiling oddly, a wisp of gold flame with eyes that could kindle nightmares. The woman stood rooted to the spot on bare, muddy feet, emanating a mixture of awe and profound fear, and Roddy knew that the cottier woman was convinced her visitors were something else than human.

  The woman stepped back, and began to beckon them urgently into the squalid hut. Her dismay, Roddy realized, was centered not so much on fear of the unknown as on her utter lack of anything to share or offer. Not to be thought niggardly or close was her greatest fear—this woman who had not even food for her crying child.

  Faelan moved to follow without glancing back at Roddy. On her own, she scrambled from her horse, willing her nose not to wrinkle as she entered the dark hut.

  Inside, she could hardly see for the smoke and the watering of her eyes. But the sound of grunting snuffles and the dreaming dark mind of an animal alerted her to the sow and six piglets sprawled out in the corner. There seemed to be no furniture; the baby lay whimpering on the dirt floor amongst a pile of straw and rags.

  Faelan said something in a kind tone, and bent over the child. There was nothing threatening in the gesture, but to Roddy’s shock a shaft of sheer panic struck the woman. Her mouth dropped open, and her cry and Roddy’s blended, halting Faelan in mid-move.

  “Don’t touch it,” Roddy exclaimed. “She thinks—”

  Roddy stopped, caught exposing knowledge she should have no way of knowing. Faelan straightened, his gaze passing from her to the peasant woman’s frightened face.

  “We scare her,” Roddy said quickly. “Is it possible—I mean…she seems to think you might hurt the child.”

  That was not exactly what the woman thought. The fear in her mind was that Faelan was going to steal the baby; that the sidhe had come to take the little girl away to raise her as one of their own.

  In a peculiar, spotty way, Roddy translated the unknown words through another’s mind and images as Faelan told the woman that she had nothing to fear for her child. He moved away from the baby, and stood looking down at the pigs.

  Instantly the woman scurried into the corner. She grabbed a piglet, ignoring the grunts and squeals to pull out the one she considered the finest, and thrust it into Faelan’s hands.

  He looked down at the wriggling creature, and a strange black humor curved his mouth. He turned to Roddy. She had no more choice than he about receiving the squalling, wriggling creature into her arms. “It seems we have a gift,” he said, above the pathetic shrieks.

  The sharp panic of the little animal and the dull hunger of the baby seemed to thicken the air in the hut until Roddy could not breathe. “Faelan,” she said hoarsely, trying to hand the piglet back, “we can’t take it! She has nothing, not even a scrap of bread for her child.”

  “Ah, you think you know the way of it all, don’t you?” His mocking voice cut through the dimness. “You leave it, then. You leave this miserable suckling pig and let this woman lie awake nights
for a year, fearing that the bhean sidhe will return to take her babe.” He jerked his head toward the trembling figure, white-faced in the gloom. “Aye, she’s afraid of us, little girl. You more than me. You look straight in her eyes and give her back her gift in the name of charity. Do that, and see how grateful she’ll be.”

  Roddy stood still, gripping the piglet—knowing Faelan was right, that the woman was terrified the bhean sidhe would refuse her gift. The naming echoed in the woman’s mind, a darker one than ever Faelan called her. Banshee, it was, the stuff of nightmares. Roddy meant to do good, to reach out and help, but the truth was always there to bind her. Forever different, forever to be shunned for the trace of strange power that clung to her. She could never be kind to this plain peasant woman. She could only be fearsome, a fell spirit to be appeased.

  Her mouth thinned and quivered, and the blurring in her eyes was not all smoke. She hefted the scrabbling animal and turned away, slipping a little as her skirts trailed in the mud just outside the low front door. She reached her horse and stood there, unable to mount, unable to cry, unable to do anything but stand helplessly and clutch the filthy, unhappy piglet to her breast.

  She heard Faelan behind her. He took the little animal under one arm in a grip that made it squeal even louder, and with the other hand boosted Roddy into her saddle. He handed up the piglet and left her. Without a word, he began to rummage in his saddlebag.

  He brought out a half loaf of hard-crusted bread and some oatcakes. He tore the bread, and Roddy saw him slip a gold coin deep into the soft interior. When the woman came out of the hut to watch, he offered her a portion of the bread and oatcake, and leaned against a tree to eat the rest.

  Roddy sat on her horse with the piglet and watched. Somehow, it seemed, she had gotten to be the villain of this piece: here she sat like some aloof princess with her royal booty while the two of them shared a companionable meal. Faelan ate all of his, but the peasant woman only nibbled at her oatcake. When she had eaten part, she nodded toward the hut and spoke. Roddy understood that she meant to ask Faelan if he would be pleased for her to share the bread with her baby.

  He nodded assent. As soon as she disappeared inside the hut, he swung up onto his horse and nudged it toward Roddy. Grabbing her reins, he led her at a rapid trot down the brushy path and out of sight of the cottage.

  Roddy had her hands too full of piglet to make any complaints or demands at the bouncing gait. They splashed across a deep, wide stream, and began rising steadily. When the path flowed into an overgrown road and took a switchback, she realized suddenly where they were.

  Above them loomed the burned-out mansion, rising dark gray and skeletal against the hill. Faelan’s horse broke into a canter and hers followed, demanding every ounce of skill she had as a horsewoman to hang on to the squirming pig and keep her seat. Faelan didn’t seem particularly worried that she’d lose it, she thought grimly, and could not decide whether that was a compliment or an insult. Or just forgetfulness…although how he could forget this pig when it squealed as if it were being eaten alive she could not imagine.

  They drew up before the great house, the horses blowing and the piglet kicking and complaining. Roddy could see the far hillside through the barren windows. Like a dead hand, a piece of rotting silk waved gloomily from the closest one.

  “Will you shut that damned thing up?” Faelan snarled as the piglet’s squalling echoed off the ruined walls.

  Roddy was angry; she was exhausted from fighting the piglet and trying to stay on her horse; her ribs ached from the baby animal’s thumpings; she was hungry, and she had the strong suspicion that it was her own lunch that had gone to feed the cottier woman while Faelan had stood calmly by and eaten all of his own.

  “Oh, yes, my lord,” she snapped. “Immediately!” She held the piglet out straight in her trembling arms and gave it a shake. “Silence, please! Or His Most High and Mighty Royal Highness will have you summarily evicted!”

  He dragged her horse up and twisted around, his mouth tight and dangerous. “Don’t tread on me, Roddy. You’ve damn well done enough today.”

  “What have I done? Sat by and watched you throw a man out of his living. Taken the food out of a babe’s mouth because of some nonsense about fairies—”

  “Get down.” He swept the piglet out of her hands and dismounted with it under one arm. She watched him stride over toward the house and deposit the animal in one of the empty ornamental urns that guarded the broad, moss-covered steps. The piglet shrieked pathetically, its cries interspersed with the scrabbling sounds of its small feet on the stone. “God,” he said. “Will it never be silent?”

  “It’s hungry.” Roddy dismounted alone, though it was no easy task in her hampering skirts. “Like some others I could mention.” From the cantle of her saddle hung a leather wine flask. She untied it and peered over the top of the stone vase, holding the mouth of the flask pinched closed until the piglet’s anxious lips found a shape that promised nourishment.

  The commotion in the urn quieted suddenly. The piglet took to the “imported” Spanish wine as if it were ambrosia.

  Faelan swore. “Will you waste all our drink on that squalling beast?”

  “I’ve gone hungry. I suppose you can go thirsty.”

  He paced over to where she stood looking down into the urn and pulled up her chin. “Hungry, are you? Surely such mortal weaknesses don’t touch your charitable soul.”

  She jerked away. “The only food I begrudge is that you ate. You might have given her it all.”

  “She wouldn’t have taken it that way.”

  “No? How convenient, to think so.”

  His frown grew black and deep. “I know these people,” he said. “She wouldn’t have taken it.”

  “If you know them so well, why did you tarry there at all? Could you not predict what would happen?” She lifted her eyes and stared hotly into his. “Behold—” she sneered. “A fairy, my lord. Come to steal a babe, or a swine, or whatever she can filch. I know what people think of me; how they dread to look at me, and turn away as soon as they can. ’Tis no different here, but only more honest.” Her voice broke slightly, and she clenched her teeth and looked down to hide it. “Banshee,” she said to the wine flask and the suckling pig. “Is that how they’ll call me? Well, I understand the meaning of that, too, my lord. It takes no great knowledge of the people to guess.”

  A silence followed her bitter words, filled only by the sniffling sounds of the piglet. Faelan turned away and crossed the steps; sat down heavily in the center.

  “Yes.” His voice sounded suddenly hollow and tired. “I shouldn’t have stopped there. I was angry. I wanted to show you—” He broke off, frowning down at his boots. “Damn you. Why did you cross me with Willis?”

  “I should think that was obvious. It’s wrong, to put him out with nothing. I won’t live in that house, and I won’t live in this Mr. Farrissy’s house when you put him out. I couldn’t, knowing—” She bit her lip, and then said carefully, “imagining what it would feel like, to lose one’s home so suddenly.”

  “And how do you suppose that woman felt,” he snapped, “when her husband died and Willis evicted her because she couldn’t meet the rent?”

  A furious response died on Roddy’s tongue as the significance of his words dawned on her. “He put her out?” she repeated stupidly.

  “Oh, aye—that he did, my dear. Along with a hundred others.” Faelan rubbed his hands across his face. Then suddenly, harshly, he laughed. He took off his hat, leaning with one elbow on the highest step with his black hair curling and blowing softly in the wind. “So,” he said. “What do you think of your new abode?”

  Roddy blinked.

  He waved his hat, taking in the ruined mansion in one sweep. “You’ve made your bed, little girl. This seems to be the only place now that we have to lie in it.”

  Faelan, Roddy mused with a sigh, was most definitely not quite sane. From her position on the hill above the house, she looked down into th
e biting west wind on five weeks of progress. The structure had taken on a strange, comical appearance—half hairy, half bald—where the hastily erected roof framework had been covered temporarily with thatch that was now being removed to make way for the blue slates that had arrived by ship from Wales.

  She drew her cloak up around her chin, holding MacLassar under the warm folds. He gave a comfortable little series of grunts and settled down to sleep after his lunch of cow’s milk and Spanish wine.

  It was Faelan who had named the piglet. MacLassar—Son of Flame, for the way it had emerged from its first tumultuous bathing to follow doggedly at Roddy’s heels and curl up at her feet on their bed of straw in the abandoned stable.

  Roddy could see Faelan now on the roof with the other workers; he was easy to pick out, taller and broader of shoulder than the rest, his voice clipped and impatient as he issued orders and then moved to do the job himself if the laborer didn’t respond fast enough for him.

  He had absolutely no tact.

  She remembered with wrenching clarity the day the tenants and cottiers had gathered at his invitation in front of the big house. They were all sorts, some plain and warmly dressed, but many in threadbare wool. A surprising number sat on good hunters, decked out in clothes as fine as any country squire’s. They stood in a straggling half-circle facing the terrace and the house, with their hats in their hands so that the chill wind off the sea blew their hair in their eyes, waiting for Faelan to speak.

  They were afraid of him. All of them. In some it was a conscious thing, as the cottier woman’s fear had been—a peasant’s belief in fairies and the creatures of the night. In others, mainly the ones on horseback, the fear was clothed in belligerent anger, in mental scorn and enmity. There were patterns there, secrets and self-interest, but the fear hung over it all like black smoke. They had expected an Englishman and a stiff and proper lady, but to a man what they saw was something else entirely. The devil and his fallen angel. A bad dream come to life.

 
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