The regency romances, p.111
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       The Regency Romances, p.111

           Laura Kinsale

  He fingered his swelling lip. “Of course.” He looked down at his hand that came away marked with blood. “I can see that you have the situation completely under control.”

  Faelan made a sound, incoherent, and swung away.

  “Admit it.” Earnest followed up his parry with attack. “Admit it, man! You’re hanging by a thin thread.”

  A gust of wind brought rain spatters and the acrid smell of smoke in through an unglazed window. Faelan stood in front of the opening, ignoring the rain.

  “What happens when it snaps?” Earnest asked with quiet menace. “I know about you, Iveragh. I’ve made it my business to find out. You may be a madman or you may just be an immoral beast, but either way you don’t own my sister. You don’t control anything. You’ll be lucky if you don’t hang for what I’ve heard of you—”

  Roddy caught a vision of the dowager countess in Earnest’s mind, a face crumpled in hysterical tears. He can’t help himself, she’d cried to Earnest. I know he never meant to do it! He was just a boy—How could a boy of ten mean to kill his own—

  “—Starting here, Iveragh,” Earnest went on in that low, relentless voice. “Starting right here. You think I’ll leave my sister with a man who pushed his father off a cliff?”

  Faelan laughed. It was a terrible sound; inhuman. “I think you have the story wrong. My father died here. In this house.” He half turned. “My mother didn’t tell you that?” The smile on his face was a devil’s insolence. “Ah, but she’s always so anxious to protect me. To make sure no one knows the truth. The place burned. Senach found him after the fire, with his skull smashed on the floor of his own study.”

  Roddy stared at the dark puddle on the hearth. I don’t want to know this, she thought, I don’t want to hear.

  But Earnest’s wave of horror and disgust twisted her insides and kept her rooted to the floor. “His skull smashed. God, God…” Her brother’s voice trailed off.

  Faelan reached with one hand for the half-finished window frame. It was an unconscious move—Roddy thought it was—but she felt her brother’s jolt of wariness as the motion dislodged a pike which had been leaning against the new wood. The weapon clattered to the floor.

  Faelan stood, staring down at it.

  “Little girl,” he said in a tight voice. “I think you and your brother had best get out of here. Before we’re all sorry.”

  “Aye. I’ll get her out.” Earnest gripped Roddy’s arm and began to propel her toward the door. He stopped at the entry, his fingers digging into Roddy’s arm as she fought to break his hold. “Any way I have to do it, Iveragh. I promise you. Any way on God’s earth I have to do it.”

  Never before in her life had Roddy been physically restrained. And certainly not by one of her brothers—by her favorite brother, her best friend, who appeared now to have gone mad along with everyone else.

  She sat in the dusty humidity of the abandoned harness room and fumed. The blow to Earnest’s head had definitely injured more than his lip. He’d locked her in. Locked her in, for God’s sake, as if she were a troublesome child, or an animal, while he went to Derrynane to arrange passage with the O’Connells.

  He’d picked his spot well, though that was luck more than forethought. He’d pushed her inside in an unthinking rage, driven by the release of pent-up frustration, the need to do something after seven days of futile arguing. Then he’d shot the bolt home and left her banging at the heavy door and screaming at him to come to his senses.

  But he hadn’t. He was too wrapped up in this battle with Faelan, in which she had become a symbol, a pawn—a princess to be rescued from the dragon. He’d forgotten that Faelan had urged her to leave; glossed over any evidence that Faelan was not a heartless monster. Earnest saw, as well as Roddy, that while the soldiers were occupied with destroying everything Faelan had brought, they left untouched the cottiers’ meager stores. But Earnest did not want to think of that—he was tired of gray; he was sick of fighting mist. He wanted black and white.

  And there was no one blacker in his mind just now than the Devil Earl.

  Roddy stayed all afternoon in her musty prison. No one responded to her pounding and cries. No one came near or heard her—no one but MacLassar, who sat himself down outside the door and waited patiently for her to emerge and feed him.

  Through the high, barred window, she could see that the rain-swept sky had cleared as it usually did in the evening. Her throat was swelled and scratchy, her voice broken from futile shouting. Sweet, golden rays of late sun illuminated the room for a few minutes, and then the empty corners went to shadow and the night-gloom closed in. She strained her talent until her head ached, listening for Earnest, or Martha, or anyone.

  As she sat there on a rotting tack-trunk she began to feel…something. Not a single mind, but the swell of consciousness that heralded a crowd. There was anger in it, and eager violence: a cheerful aggression—uniquely male, and beneath that a physical, almost sexual, pleasure in the lockstep rhythm of the march.

  Roberts’ infantry.

  Roddy stood up. The soldiers’ mood frightened her. They had not come near the mansion in force since that first day—it had only been Roberts and a small contingent who’d arrived each day to collect what arms had been brought in the night before. Yesterday it had been only five pikes. Today it would be two.

  If she closed her eyes, she could imagine the scene. It had become a ritual—Faelan standing cold and silent with his cottiers as Roberts poured out a tirade against the evils of resistance to His Majesty’s troops, carefully geared to humiliate and abuse as far as possible without crossing the fine line of direct accusation. Roberts was good at it; more than once, Roddy had seen Faelan go taut and heard the faint, faint tremor of rage in his voice as he repeated his own ritual speech: “The arms have been surrendered. The barony is loyal. There are no more weapons in this neighborhood to my knowledge.”

  Then Roberts would drip with scorn for liars, make veiled references to Faelan’s reputation and more open ones to his connection with Geoffrey—and announce what his men would be turned loose upon the next day.

  They were running out of targets. Faelan’s imports had been decimated. There were only the scattered cottiers, and the great house itself.

  She had the thought at the same moment that shouts erupted from the direction of the house. The words were lost with distance, the thoughts obscured by the multitude, but she recognized her husband’s voice—hoarse with the same wild fury that had possessed him when he’d turned on Earnest.

  In answer, a sharp ragging pop cut the twilight.

  That sound hit her the way Faelan’s fist had smashed her brother’s jaw: fear like a blow, an impact that sent her mind to black terror and her limbs to wax. For an instant it paralyzed her, and then she grabbed the first thing that came to hand—a long piece of metal, some underpinning of an ancient carriage that she’d barely been able to lift when she’d pushed it off the trunk to make room for herself—and swung it at the heavy door.

  The crash of iron on wood sent pain to her teeth, but she hefted the metal club and struck again. The wood split at the hinges. She focused her attack at the point of weakness, sobbing with effort, swinging over and over until the lower bolts gave with a squealing groan, freeing the bottom half of the door from its hinge.

  She forced her way through, clenching her teeth against the rough scrape of broken wood across one arm where her cape fell free and her sleeve ripped. MacLassar peeked out of the stall where he’d retreated, and rushed to tangle with her skirt as she scrambled to her feet.

  She ran, throwing her cape aside when it hindered her. The shouting had become a roar, and through the lowering night she could see flames arching upward, blazing brands aimed at the upper windows of the house. One disappeared through an opening, faded to nothing for a moment, and then flared, filling the window with a rising red glow. Another found its mark, and by the time Roddy reached the crowd of weaving, shouting silhouettes in the forecourt, the upper story was

  She did not care. She searched the chaos frantically, screaming Faelan’s name above the noise of the fire and the soldiers. Her talent was useless; without the strength of shielding she’d learned in London, she would have been writhing on the ground under the emotion generated by the mob.

  Someone ran past her and shoved her roughly aside, heading for the stables. MacLassar squealed as she stumbled over him. She grabbed him up as she found her balance and threw him over her shoulder, plunging forward, crying desperate curses and shoving back viciously when anyone pushed her. Dark figures were running out of the house, carrying furniture and silver plate. Bayonets flashed scarlet sparks in the glow of the fire, still slung, but treacherous enough on the back of some gyrating soldier occupied with mayhem.

  She heard Faelan before she saw him. His voice—strong and whole, bellowing her name over the tumult—made her stumble around toward the source in sick relief.

  Two redcoats had him pinned by the arms in the dancing shadow of Roberts’ horse. She ducked a shouldered musket, holding MacLassar close to her head and panting under his bouncing weight as she ran. Faelan wrenched free as she reached him. His captors moved to restrain him again, but Captain Roberts shouted, “Let him go! He can’t stop it now.”

  Roddy saw Faelan flash a look up toward the captain, and even through her barriers she could read the triumph in the officer’s eyes. Captain Roberts had had his revenge. He’d seen Faelan break; had found the chink in the mask.

  Then she was in his arms, glad of the painful grip that made MacLassar squeal and wriggle. “I heard gunshots.” She clutched at his coat. Her voice cracked under the strain of tears and relief. “I heard you and then I heard them shooting!”

  “Roddy.” He rocked her, his breath fierce in her ear, holding her with one arm and subduing MacLassar by main force with the other. “Little girl, little girl, I thought you’d gone.”

  “Earnest locked me in the harness room,” she cried. “He’s gone to Derrynane—he’s arranging passage—”

  A cracking sound drowned her words, and suddenly the soldiers began to surge backward. Faelan kept hold of her, pulling her along, cutting off circulation with the strength of his grip on her shoulder. The cracking grew to a steam-engine hiss, and with a slow, terrible majesty, Faelan’s new roof bowed. Flames soared up through the spreading crevices. Slates began to crash down onto the rapidly clearing forecourt.

  From a safe distance, the crowd watched as the roof structure collapsed into the stone walls with a thunderous groan, sending a thousand sparks sailing into night.

  The soldiers cheered. Faelan’s hand went tight and stiff on her shoulder. She felt him turn his face into her hair.

  There was no comfort she could give him. Not even the pointless offer of her embrace, for MacLassar pummeled her with frantic feet, driven to panic by the noise and the smoke. It was all she could do hold the half-grown piglet with both arms. Someone stumbled against her back, jolting her free of Faelan’s touch. In the same moment, MacLassar twisted and kicked, sliding relentlessly from her hold. She struggled, and lost him.

  He was gone in an instant. The fire made a mockery of substance and shadow, confusing everything into a shifting blur of arms and legs and muskets. Then above the noise came a high-pitched squeal of terror, and she saw MacLassar lifted overhead in an infantryman’s hands.

  “No!” she screamed. “No!”

  She lunged forward, and the struggling piglet leaped free. There was a wild shuffle and then with a yell of glee another soldier hefted MacLassar high above the crowd. The animal’s shrieks only made the men more excited by their game: MacLassar jumped and escaped and was caught again, and one soldier made a motion of bringing the piglet down on another’s bayonet. A jostle of the crowd made him stumble and miss, and MacLassar fell free and bolted.

  Roddy fought through the mob in the direction the piglet had gone. She heard Faelan behind her, shouting her name. The sound of MacLassar’s panicked squeals floated above the tumult as she shoved and slid through. It seemed to dawn upon several soldiers at once that there was a female in their midst, and amid renewed shouting hard hands grabbed at her dress.

  She jerked away, and bounced back into another man’s chest. His arm closed around her torso; she felt the knobs of buttons against her back and heard his hoot of pleasure as his mouth came down, revolting and wet on her neck. He swung her, and she kicked backward, connecting enough to make him stagger and overbalance. He hit his nearest comrade’s shoulder and his clutch loosened. Gulping air, Roddy tore at his fingers and scrambled free.

  She wasted no breath in screaming; it took all she had to duck and fight and narrow her talent to an arc of blazing clarity around her, channeling the energy she’d used for her barriers to catch the wild flow of intention around her, to separate minds and connect them to bodies, to avoid the reaching arm in front of her and slide away from the grasp that came from behind.

  She was afraid; she was terrified, but there was no time for that. The fire lit her tormentors in lurid red motion. A soldier made a grab for her skirt and she spun away, knocking into another with enough force to push him facedown on the stone. She jumped, not quite across him, landing with her heel in his back and catching the sharp, nauseating lance of cracking bone before she thrust the sensation away.

  Each time she turned, she reeled toward the side where her gift found the mob thinnest—away from the fire, toward the safety of darkness. She could hear shouts above the rest, demanding order, and from the corner of one eye she saw Roberts’ horse silhouetted against the blaze as he waded into his men with his pistol pointed in the air.

  The crack of gunfire caught the attention of the men around her for an instant; long enough for her to lunge free. One turned, yelling, but Roddy avoided his grasp and darted away, throwing herself to one side or the other in anticipation of the stragglers who stood between her and freedom.

  She was in the open suddenly, but she kept running, heading for the cover of the overgrown shrubbery. Behind her the roar of the fire drowned out voices, but she felt the changing emotion of the troop as the officers began to restore some semblance of discipline. There wasn’t much left for the men to set upon; the house and outbuildings been put to flame and the furniture bashed to pieces without resistance. Of rebels or even servants there were none to be found; no caches of hidden guns or gold. With no fuel for destruction, their excitement ebbed quickly.

  In the receding emotion, Roddy picked out MacLassar’s panicky flight. He was hurt and frantic, moving at speed away from the scene of terror. Roddy cast a look back at the mansion, burning steadily now, and plunged into the darkness after her wounded pet.

  Chapter 21

  There was only up and down in the dark. Up and down, and rocks to stumble on and heather to tangle her feet, like living hands bent on dragging her to her knees. Each time it tripped her, she struggled upright, heaving for breath and plowing forward again, up the ridge, up and up until the earth tilted down again—and she stopped, staring bleakly into the dark.

  She could see the line between the horizon and the sky, where a few hazy stars hung below the clouds, but the ground at her feet was a black and shapeless mass. In a few places the dim starlight caught the blurred outline of a bush or a stone, but the harder she strained the more the edges seemed to slip and waver, until she might have been standing before a smooth, safe plain or wavering at the edge of a precipice.

  She thought of the militiaman who’d died the night of the fairy ball, and how a cliff must have looked like safe ground to him, until suddenly ground wasn’t there at all. The more she thought, the harder it was to fight the metallic taste of panic in her mouth. She could imagine how it would feel. One step, and then nothing; the awful drop, the air rushing past…it would take a long time, a very long time, before one hit the bottom—

  She stood frozen, breathing too fast, her stomach weak and her ears ringing with terror.

  She’d long since given up finding MacLa
ssar. Hours ago, she’d lost contact with his small, frightened presence among the dark hills. She’d stopped then, when she’d realized it, and turned back the way she had come, expecting to see the glow from the fire as a beacon.

  But there was nothing. Only the dark, and the faint, silent wind.

  Her gift was no aid; she found no rational mind nearby to help. There were creatures about, hares and mice and birds, with their little spurts of fear at her noisy approach, but for half the night she’d stumbled aimlessly without human contact.

  She feared she had drifted into the mountains themselves, for in trying to find the fire she’d topped ridge after ridge, hoping at the crown of each one to see the blaze. It seemed impossible that the fire which had lit the whole sky could have faded so suddenly out of existence.

  The logical part of her had an answer. There’d been little to burn on the half-repaired mansion. Once the roof and the new second floor had gone, there was nothing else to fuel the flames.

  She blinked, trying to bring her mind into focus, if not her eyes. Beneath the fear was exhaustion, a deeper, heavier misery. Her legs trembled and her throat burned. Her skin was hot, but she was cold; her cloak long lost somewhere back at the stable and her French muslin dress never meant for the damp night air. She took a raw breath, fought back the paralyzing images of falling, and forced herself to put one foot in front of the other.

  She crept along, feeling ahead with each step. She had an idea: to throw pebbles ahead of her every few feet and listen for the sound of them hitting the ground. It was slow, but it was progress, and she heartened a little as she edged down the hill without mishap.

  A sound came to her. She thought it was wind at first, but it remained steady, a low rustle of water over stones, that grew as she neared the bottom of the valley. The vegetation thickened, rose up into bushes that brushed wet fingers in her face. To avoid the branches she kept her head down. The clinging vegetation opened. Her feet found a smooth rut among the plants: a cowpath, she guessed, and thought no more about it, only glad to have a guide and an easier place to walk.

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