The regency romances, p.115
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       The Regency Romances, p.115

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Davan took a breath. Sweat was breaking out on his forehead in his impatience for Roddy to move. Hit him, Davan screamed in his mind. Hit him now.

  A huge lump built in her throat. She swallowed, and swallowed again. Her eyes began to blur.

  Do it, Davan urged. For God’s sake, do it!

  The pike burned her palms. She could not breathe. A hot tear slid down her cheek.

  Hit him! Davan was verging on hysteria. Hit him, hit him, hit him!

  “I can’t!” she sobbed.

  Faelan jerked around.

  She saw Davan move, diving for the pike and sweeping it up into a murderous thrust. Roddy screamed. Her arms moved without her mind’s command, swinging her weapon in one long, violent arc. The passage seemed to take place like a strange, slow dance: she heard the whistle of the handle through the air, saw Faelan duck and evade, saw Davan’s pike rise up toward Faelan’s chest…and then felt impact shudder through her body as the wood in her hands met the steel point of the other pike and smashed them both into splinters against the pavement. An instant later, Faelan completed his own lithe turn with a blow that took Davan down in an explosion of pain and blackness.

  The youth hit the pavement, already unconscious. His companions fled, all but one, who only hesitated long enough to see Faelan take aim again with the pistol.

  Her husband caught her with his free hand as the others disappeared, curling his fingers around the nape of her neck. “Little bitch—you stupid little ass—did you talk them into that insanity?” He let her go with a hard shove that sent her stumbling to her knees. “You won’t get your precious lover free with those buffoons, but you came damned close to murdering me, didn’t you? Get up.”

  He dragged her up by her shoulder, trapping her wrists behind her back. She whimpered, not fighting, finding her legs somehow outside her command. She leaned into his familiar strength in complete surrender. With an oath, he slid his arm around her shoulders, half pushing and half carrying her back toward the main thoroughfare.

  At the corner of the alley, he fought through the crowd along the stone wall of Newgate. Soldiers still milled outside the prison gates. Faelan stopped a few yards from the entrance, glaring down at her. “You want Geoffrey and your brother out?” he hissed. “Stand here and watch.”

  He left her with her knees wilting in delayed reaction. His figure melted into the throng, lost quickly among the others in the last vestiges of twilight. At the gates, lamps were lit, shedding pools of yellow illumination down onto the guarded entrance.

  Roddy stared numbly at the prison entrance, still shaking too much to question or think. A few moments later, a scarlet-coated officer parted from the crowd. He strode directly to the guardhouse and returned the salute of the soldier on duty.

  Roddy stood bolt upright.

  With an effort of will, she focused her talent, too late to catch the guard’s thoughts before he took some papers from Faelan’s hand and disappeared. Faelan stood back, just inside the gate, his hands behind his back and his feet spread in an attitude of careless patience.

  A long time went by. Roddy stared at him, her lips parted, while her sluggish mind finally began to awaken to the moment. The last of the day faded, and the night was full of hysterical laughter and uneasy people. The rest of the lamps were dark; up and down the street the crowd was lost in shadow. Only the prison gate was a pool of mellow light.

  It came upon her slowly. No thunderous revelation, but something like the soft mists of Iveragh, that crept through her and filled her, twining around her heart and squeezing. She looked at Faelan and wanted to cry for the mistake she’d made in judging him. He stood motionless in the center of the light, his face obscured by the shako’s brim. A King’s man, in a uniform that when she looked closely did not quite fit: too tight across the shoulders, too generous around his lean waist.

  She had not been able to hit him. Not because she was too weak or too noble to take a man down from behind. She would have struck Davan senseless in an instant if the threat had been reversed.

  No, her hesitation had not been weakness. It had been a choice.

  I love you, she thought, gazing at his still figure. I love you. No matter what.

  Faelan straightened. The returning guard passed back papers, and Roddy felt familiar minds. A spike of wild hope shot through her. Between four yeoman guards and the jailer, Earnest and Geoffrey appeared in the gate.

  The papers came out again. Roddy watched in a misery of tension as the jailer looked at each one carefully. She narrowed her gift, straining to find his thoughts among the crowd. It was impossible. She caught his doubt, a sense that this release of prisoners was peculiar, but the pitch of strain from Earnest and Geoffrey mixed with the jailer’s concern and the crowd’s babble, until she could make nothing clear.

  She saw Faelan shrug in answer to a query that was lost to her ears in the noise. He waved a hand toward the crush outside the gate.

  Shorthanded, that seemed to mean.

  The jailer looked again at Faelan, and even through the confusion, she could feel his meteoric rise in suspicion. He asked Faelan something else, but before her husband answered, a disturbance rippled through the crowd outside. A heavy, shambling man began shouting and waving toward the prison, and as everyone stopped to look, his drunken oaths rose above the throng—wild, incoherent curses directed at the jailer.

  The jailer looked that way, stretching up to see through the crowd. His hand with Faelan’s papers fell to his side. A whisper and then a roll of recognition went through the street. “Neilson,” she heard someone say. “By God, isn’t that Sam Neilson?”

  The huge drunk stumbled about in the little open space the crowd made for him. “Gregg,” he shouted, and the jailer turned sharply around. “I’m back! I’m back! You been—” He swung around, nearly falling. “Uni—united! We’re come! A damned, damned—Gregg! You hear me?” He laughed. “You, boy, you damned—boy—”

  Roddy held her breath. The crowd was tightening, closing in on the drunken man. “’Tis that printer—the Northern Star—” she heard. “—was he out?” “—sedition—four years ago—” “—paroled him, but he’s in it again—” The jailer had turned to the yeoman guards. They formed into a quick knot, and slipped out into the street. An instant later they surrounded the big man. Danger suddenly seemed to penetrate his besotted brain; he bellowed something and charged the guard, swinging wildly. The scene erupted into a brawl. Roddy backed against the wall, and found herself jerked roughly away from it. Faelan’s hands shoved at her, and she had a moment’s image of his face, locked in concentration. “The alley!” he shouted, and then Earnest was there, his hands bound behind his back, looking at Roddy for the way to go.

  She grabbed his elbow and turned, pushing toward safety. Once someone flew against her, knocking her breathless against the wall. She staggered, still clinging to Earnest’s arm while he braced. “Hold on,” he yelled, setting his feet against the crush from behind. She dragged herself upright, catching a glimpse of Geoffrey and Faelan behind. Her husband’s intent face steadied the rising fear in her—Faelan was thinking, he was not panicking, and she could do the same.

  Think. Hold Earnest’s arm and don’t let go. One step, dodge. Think. The sudden fight was dying, people were looking at her strangely. Suspiciously. Someone caught her shoulder. She let her knees go to water, sliding down out of the grip and yelling a fishwife’s imprecation in a drunken blur. She held on to Earnest and rubbed herself against him. Another hand came down on her shoulder, hard, and Faelan dragged her up like a drowned kitten. “He’s not much good in irons, my pretty.” He swept her into his arms and pushed on. “Spend your wares on a man with his hands free.”

  Suspicion dissolved into knowing laughter. The crowd of loyalists suddenly seemed to think Faelan might need help with his prisoners. A few opened way, hissing at Earnest and Geoffrey as they passed. The mood began to darken, but the alley loomed ahead, barely visible as a deeper shadow in the unlit facade. R
oddy slipped out of Faelan’s arms, and stumbled into the open space. She turned in the pitch black and found her brother and Geoffrey shoved in behind her.

  Roddy sat her saddle on a stolen horse by willpower alone. Dawn brought a tinge of color to the surroundings, giving line and definition to the rich fields and hedgerows and the mountains to the east. It was her fourth dawn in which the sun seemed an enemy, a blazing beacon rising to shine down and expose their small party to the forces which now burned over the land.

  No rebels had materialized that night in Dublin, but the imagined United army which had thrown the capital into a frenzy had become a reality in the counties outside. On the midnight ride out of the city Roddy had experienced her first taste of murder—vicious murder, when the mail coach ahead of them on the Cork road had been halted and burned by the rebels, and the passengers hacked to death.

  They’d been too far away to see it, she and Earnest and Geoffrey, but her gift had frozen her in the pain and bloody terror as they stood in the dark and waited for Faelan to return with a report of the bonfire that lit the horizon. Earnest held her in front of him on his horse while she shook too much to control her own. When Faelan returned, he said little, but it was enough. They turned away from the main road.

  Since then, she had seen enough of death. What the rebels accomplished with their pikes and firelocks, the loyalists answered with equal ferocity. Faelan had led his little group around the towns, but Roddy had seen the corpses hanging from trees, and the bodies left to be scavenged in the fields. She heard the stories, and caught the memories in old women’s minds—of sons tortured for information, of the caps of burning pitch and the half-hangings and the flogging. In one place a whole garrison had been murdered in their beds by rebels, and the commander—notorious for his torturing methods—burned in a barrel of pitch. In another the panicked loyalists, deserted by the retreating army, had taken all prisoners out of the jails and shot them without trial.

  Now, in the quiet dawn, such things seemed impossible and far away. But she saw a pair of ravens circling a dark spot across the field, and she turned her face and would not look closer.

  All right? Earnest asked, a silent question between them. She looked up at him riding beside her, and nodded.

  “Where are we?” he said aloud.

  It was directed toward Faelan, and tingled with faint belligerence. Roddy felt a surge of annoyance at her brother’s lingering distrust of her husband.

  Faelan squinted at the low mountains on their left. “That should be Sculloge Gap.”

  “Is that the road to the coast?”

  Faelan nodded.

  “Aren’t we going to turn that way, then?” Earnest was anxious to reach a port, not for his own sake, but in his determination to get Roddy to safety.

  To her surprise, her husband did not answer immediately. Up until now, it had seemed as if he’d had everything planned, and his crisp orders had swept them all along in his wake—even though Geoffrey was burning to rejoin his rebels and Earnest was stewing over the disgrace of having broken out of prison when he’d been falsely arrested in the first place.

  Roddy pursed her lips. She wouldn’t have believed six months ago that Earnest could have been so stupid as to care about something like that.

  Faelan halted his horse and turned back to face the rest of them in the narrow lane they’d been following. He’d exchanged the red uniform coat for something dark and nondescript. Where the early light touched the shape of his cheek and jaw, the grim outlines were blurred by stubble. “You may go east, if you please.”

  “I thought we were trying to make for a port.”

  “That’s certainly what I’d do if I were you.” Faelan unstrapped his water flask and upended it. A trickle of moisture slipped down and made a random trail through two days’ growth of beard.

  “Well—” Earnest said impatiently. “How am I supposed to know which direction to take?”

  With a leisure that was maddening to Earnest, Faelan recapped his flask and twisted to flip open his leather saddle pack. He held out a folded paper. “Forgive me. Have I been monopolizing the map?”

  Earnest snatched it. “Damned right you have. I’d been hoping all this doubling back and forth was to some purpose.”

  “It was. Staying alive.”

  Geoffrey had been staring at the mountains. “I keep telling you, we’ve only to find the United headquarters to get protection. Bagenal Harvey’s our man in Wexford.”

  “It’s inconceivable to you, I suppose,” Faelan said dryly, “that the country may still be in the hands of the regular government?”

  “You heard the news at Kilcullen!” Geoffrey’s horse danced. “Dublin’s fallen, man!”

  “I heard what a scruffy schoolmaster with a broken musket wanted to hope.”

  “The militia’s retreated. That’s a fact.”

  “Aye.” Faelan frowned toward the north, where at Narraghmore they had watched at a distance as the Suffolk Fencibles and Tyrone militia had marched out of town, leaving it completely undefended. “Aye, and I was impressed with the expertise of your United soldiers. The army itself could hardly have plundered better.”

  Geoffrey, unable to think of a suitable excuse for the half-wild mob that had taken over Narraghmore in the wake of the militia, said, “They must be short of officers. I’m heading for Wexford.”

  Earnest looked up from his map. “Yes. That’s closer than Waterford, from what I can make out.” He squinted at the rising sun. “Things look quiet enough. I think we should risk pushing on. We could make the foothills at least, before the horses need to stop.”

  “Let’s go.” Geoffrey urged his horse past Faelan’s, with Earnest close behind.

  Roddy looked after them, and then at Faelan. He met her eyes, and for a moment there was something in his face—a depth in his look, a kind of intensity, as if he were memorizing her features as he must have memorized the folded map.

  He looked away before she did, and swung his leg over the saddle.

  Roddy blinked down at him. “Are you stopping here?”

  He was already loosening his horse’s girth. “Yes,” he said. That was all.

  She lifted her knee off the sidesaddle and twisted, sliding to the ground beside him.

  “Roddy.” Earnest had paused. “Are you too tired to go on?”

  “Faelan is stopping,” she said simply.

  Earnest rode back. “Oh—come, Iveragh, do you really see the need? Every hour we dally, this damned thing is exploding around our ears. I want Roddy off this cursed island.”

  Faelan’s mouth tightened a little, but he went on stripping his horse in silence. Roddy reached for her girth.

  “Dammit,” Earnest snapped. “I think you’ve given orders long enough. You’ve no more notion of the situation than the rest of us. All this dodging has done nothing but keep us in the midst of the worst of it. Leave off that, Roddy, and come along.”

  “I’m staying with Faelan,” she said.

  Earnest took a breath. She could feel his temper slipping. “Roddy.” He spoke aloud—for everyone’s benefit—very clearly and slowly. “Come now, or by God, I’ll leave you here.”

  Roddy grabbed her saddle and flung it to the ground. “Well, Earnest,” she said, equally slowly and deliberately, “by God, why don’t you just do that?”

  Earnest opened his mouth. She didn’t give him time to marshal his response.

  “Go on!” she cried. “You won’t be missed here—you or Lord Geoffrey. I’m sick of your carping, I’ll tell you that, and I surely don’t blame Faelan if he’s had his fill of it! He saved your necks; he walked into that place and he got you out, and have either of you said one grateful word?” She yanked the saddle pad off and pulled a rubdown towel from between its folds, going after her mount’s coat with vigorous strokes. “No. Oh, no. You just go on griping, as if you were both a couple of royal princes who deserved to have a decent man risk his life for you every other day.”

  Earnest
dismounted behind her. “Roddy, you’re exhausted—”

  She whirled on him. “The devil I am,” she swore. “I’m just tired of your company. I’d ride another hundred miles if Faelan told me to.”

  “Lord, girl, are we back to this? You shouldn’t be here. You owe no loyalty to a man who don’t even try to keep you from harm.”

  “No loyalty—” Roddy dropped the towel. “Are you blind, Earnest? Are you deaf and dumb? I love him. I love him, and when I think of why we’re here—” She broke, off, unable to control her voice, and dropped to her knees to retrieve the towel.

  A leopard don’t change his spots without reason, Earnest thought. Remember that, Roddy.

  She threw up barriers, refusing to let him make arguments she could not acknowledge aloud. It was unfair, and he knew it. “Spots,” she sneered recklessly, just to show him she was aware of his tactics. “You don’t know the first thing about spots. Or loyalty either. To rescue you and Geoffrey—that’s loyalty. That’s friendship. What have you done for Faelan? Nothing, except badger him and threaten him and plague him to death. And as for Geoffrey…do you know what my husband thinks Geoffrey and I did?” She saw Earnest’s brows rise, and cried, “Yes—you might as well be shocked, I don’t care. He thinks Geoffrey and I cuckolded him. Stupid Geoffrey and his stupid rebellion; my husband thinks I’d rather love his best friend—” Her voice began to shake and rise. “His idiotic friend who isn’t worth the ground Faelan walks on; who’s never lifted a finger to plant something to eat for people who are starving; who thinks fine speeches are reason enough for this bloodbath; who can ride through what we’ve seen and call it victory—”

  She was shouting by then. A rough hand caught her shoulder and came across her mouth, stopping the sound. Faelan pulled her back against his chest. “Little girl,” he said in her ear. “Must you broadcast our quarrels to the whole county?”

  She froze for a moment, realizing the danger she’d courted. Her muscles went limp and she turned into her husband’s body. “Faelan—” The word was a sob. “I’d never go to Geoffrey. You can’t believe I’d be such a fool. I was so afraid for you, I didn’t want him near you—and he kept making fires, and then I fell in the stream, and I was lost! I was lost and I fell in and I was wet and he was going to make a fire, and he doesn’t know how to do it, even if he thinks he does—you can see the s-smoke from everywhere! Please—” She clutched at the sleeves of his coat. “Faelan, please say you believe me!”

 
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