Midsummer moon, p.35
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       Midsummer Moon, p.35

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Ransom thought of returning to Mount Falcon for help; of waiting until night for a secret attack. He abandoned both ideas. Time crowded at him. It seemed likely they meant to take her to France in the dark of the moon like any other sensible smugglers of humanity or brandy. And with the help of an overcast sky, it would be dark enough tonight.

  He looped the horse's reins in a bush and took off his hat. He was armed, at least—with a rapier and two pistols. When he left his mount, he moved away from the castle, staying amidst the gnarled bushes to angle around the hillside. When he'd gone far enough to be hidden from the gatehouse entirely, Ransom began to work his way higher, toward the castle itself.

  The blind crest of the hill still hid the peninsula. Amidst the increasing roar of the wind in the bushes above him, he could see only the tower and its telltale crimson pennant floating over the curtain wall. The path was leading him straight toward the place where the wall took an abrupt turn and disappeared from view at the crown of the hill.

  When he straightened from the cover of the scrub, hard wind caught his hair. In front of him the bushes came to an abrupt end, giving way to the grassy summit a few yards ahead. Beyond the crest, he could see nothing but sky, bluish-gray in the haze.

  The castle wall was deserted, the protective crenellations long since crumbled away. Ransom judged that any threat along the top of it would have been visible. He looked up, eyeing the place where it made a corner and vanished over the crown of the hill. If he could reach that spot...

  He put his hand on his sword and ducked, keeping low to cross the short space of open ground. Wind buffeted him the instant he left the cover of the bushes. He headed up, across the slant of the incline, looking back toward the gatehouse towers. No alarm came. He had nearly reached the crest and the safety of the wall when he glanced to his other side.

  His stomach turned. He lurched to a sudden, frozen halt.

  Beside him, there was nothing. No hill curving down from the summit, no wall, no bushes, no grass ... nothing but wind, in ferocious force, and the blinding white face of a perpendicular drop.

  His wits deserted him. His body arched back in a wild hiss of recoil. Hummocks of wind-ripped grass clung where the castle masonry had long ago torn away, stone evaporating into space at a ragged edge. Below it, the chalk cliff plummeted toward nothing.

  He crushed his fist over his mouth and took one step backward. Then terror and vertigo made him wrench around in a crazed dread that the ground had opened up behind him, too. The wind seemed to grab, pushing and pulling in willful violence. He flung himself toward the nearest solid thing, the wall, and pressed back against it as if he could drive his fingers and skull and spine right into the stone.

  He braced there, his heart and the wind a mad battery of sound. The rapier angled awkwardly, its sheath stabbing his thigh, but he could not bring himself to move enough to ease it. His body twitched, wanting to curl, wanting to roll up in frantic self-protection.

  He let his knees collapse, a quick, hard drop to the solid ground, with his heels braced in the dirt and his back shoved as vigorously against the stone as his muscles could manage.

  He closed his eyes. Sickness rolled in his chest and stomach. He tilted his head back against the stone, taking air in great gulps that gradually slowed as his mind began to agree with his senses and assure him that he was on firm earth.

  When his breathing had come back to something more or less like normality, he ventured a brief look. From his position at the base of the wall, the cliff was invisible again. On one side of him, the hill sloped up from below, unfaltering in its even incline. On the other, grass tossed and rippled at the summit, creating the comforting illusion that the land went on beyond.

  A harsh cry made him jump. A seagull sprang into view, exploding up from the deceptive crest as if it had been shot from some hidden cannon. It hovered at eye level, wings kinked, and then tilted and fell away, disappearing with a swoop that sent queasiness rippling through his body.

  Perhaps he should call out the garrison and let them storm the place after all.

  Perhaps he should walk up and knock on the front door.

  Perhaps he should go home.

  Forget the whole thing.

  He put his hand over his eyes. It still shook a little. He clenched it into a fist to stop it, curling the other around the handgrip of his sword.

  He took a deep, slow breath.

  All right.

  Keeping his back firmly to the wall, he twisted until he'd worked off his coat. He settled the rapier across his lap and slid a few inches in the direction of the edge. He craned a little. Beyond the whipping grass, he could just see the hazy horizon, where the blue-gray of the sky shaded to the deeper bluish-silver of the sea.

  He took another breath.

  He moved as far as the corner of the wall. Keeping his hands firmly in contact with the ground, he peered around the angle.

  Vertigo flooded him.

  He clutched at a root, blinking rapidly. A yard past the corner, the wall ended, hanging by some insane concatenation of stone and mortar a full foot beyond the cliff itself. The undercut face fell away, a blaze of white rock beneath the dark olive vegetation and the stones and towers that sprawled in magnificent ruin across what was left of the jutting peninsula. Down and down and down, the cliff wall finally met the shore at a beach of silver and ebony shingle, in a sheer drop that made his eyes water and his stomach heave.

  There was a particular pebble far below on the beach: oddly shaped, yellow and green against the more natural black ones. With wind tearing at his hair, he squinted down at it.

  It looked like a pebble. It was a fishing boat. He swallowed and moaned softly, clinging to the root.

  Merlin's crimson banner flew free and slapped back against the stone. She expected him. She needed him. Her life depended on him.

  He felt like being sick.

  The seagull soared up from below again, startling him with a raucous cry. It looped on the wind and pitched downward, drawing his gaze with it. His fingernails dug into the bark.

  He closed his eyes and wrenched them open, breaking the fatal fascination of the bird's lift and plummet. On the opposite cliff, a faint line of vegetation descended gradually across the chalk face, disappeared from his view, and then reappeared, emerging as a narrow track just beneath the overhanging end of the stone wall where he sat.

  Ransom stared at the footpath miserably. It was only what he deserved, he thought. God had been going easy with him, lulling him, leading him inexorably to this point where he would have to pay for all the sins he'd committed in a wickedly sinful life. He could hear the celestial snicker now.

  Carefully, Ransom transferred one hand from the root to his sword. Then he sat for a moment. He gathered himself, mind and body, and carefully inched his heel toward the bare spot between two tufts of grass, where the path emerged onto the hill.

  He kept his eyes resolutely on the ground. By the time he had his boot over the brink far enough to feel the ledge beneath, the root to which he clung was slippery with his sweat.

  He leaned into the wind, trying without loosening his hold to see around the corner. The path dropped down to clear the curtain wall, and then rose again, curving out of sight. What he could see of it looked to be about half an inch wide. But it was a path: right beneath his feet were the indentations of sheep or goat prints, cut into the soft chalk.

  Transferring his slick grip to a solid hummock of grass, he said a brief prayer and stood up. Wind buffeted him. His sword—on the inside—caught, held, and broke free with a little jerk that sent him forward in a stumble. The grass tore beneath his clutching grasp. He scrambled and swayed wildly, twisting, coming up with both hands braced above him on the rough overhang of the wall and his heart clamoring for mercy.

  He leaned his cheek on his sleeve and thought of abandoning the rapier. Not rationally, but rather with the intention of tearing off the awkward sword belt and the two pistols and tossing the whole rig
into the sea below.

  The only thing that prevented him was the notion that this insane clinging to terrifying cliffs would be wasted if he did so. He'd not be likely to save Merlin from her captors bare-handed.

  He kept his eyes rigidly ahead on each inch of path as it appeared in front of him. The gull kept swooping in and out of his vision, tormenting him with mocking cries. The wind blew, pounding at him, plastering him against the cliff until an instant's abeyance in the gale made it seem that he was swaying suddenly outward. He scrabbled at the rock. The wind resumed. He put one foot ahead of the other in his painful shuffle, never lifting his eyes from his boots.

  He came to where the cliff face retreated into the deep bite. The path narrowed. The cliff itself had an undercut slant, the top hanging farther out than the path. He inched himself around until he faced the stone, and leaned sideways to look ahead.

  Wind hit him, howling in the opposite direction. It billowed out his shirt, eddied, changed to push him from behind and changed again. He snatched back from the corner and pressed his forehead to the chalky wall, his fingers working in a futile search for security.

  He stood there, eyes screwed shut, the rock jagged against his face, and counted to ten. Then he counted to twenty. He considered the merits of counting to forty-five million. He wondered if anyone would find his skeleton, hung there a hundred years from now.

  He could still go back. He could inch his way up the path, under the wall and onto safe ground. He could slink through the bushes and mount his horse and go home.

  The chalk beneath his spread fingers crumbled a little. He moved his hand, and then his foot, and began shifting by degrees into the wild play of wind around the corner.

  He learned, in those moments, what limestone looked like at eyeball range. It scraped his cheek and his chest and his thighs as he slid forward. The wind tugged at him, pushed: one way, the other, and all the time behind him was the fall, that unthinkable drop into empty space.

  When the curved face seemed to flatten and the wind eased, he ventured a look forward. He was around the corner, into the bite. The path widened a little. Looking up at him from a few yards ahead was a startled, black-faced sheep with a stalk of dry grass protruding from its mouth.

  Ransom closed his eyes. Oh, thank you, God. Thank you very much.

  He rested a moment. He eyed the sheep. “Back off,” he muttered. “Or I'll kick you off."

  The sheep gave a few quick chews on the stalk of grass.

  Ransom pressed his cheek to the cliff. “I swear I will,” he shouted.

  The beast suddenly seemed to take his meaning. It rolled its eyes, bunched itself, and made a neat reversal. An unkempt, woolly rump bounced up the path. He watched it until the animal came to a stop at the apex of the ravine, looking back at him.

  "All right,” he said, looking down at his boot again. “We'll discuss it when I get there."

  He crept along, and was almost upon the sheep again before he looked up and found it was still ahead.

  "Hup!” he barked.

  The sheep tripped forward and sprang into a leap, landed, and hurried on up the path. Ransom paid it no attention as it disappeared above. He was staring at the crevice the animal had jumped.

  He swallowed. He wet his lips.

  It was a shadow in the white glare, with no other way around. Ransom began to breathe faster. He inched forward to the edge, and allowed himself a glance downward.

  Stupid. Oh, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.

  He twisted back and pressed his face against the stone. Oh, Merlin, he thought. I can't.

  He stood with his shoulder jammed against the cliff, the sword hanging awkwardly between his thigh and the rock, and looked again at the plunge before him. The cliff and the sky and the sea below began to make a slow, tilting spin around his head. With every breath, he heard himself make a hollow, desperate, huffing noise, like a horse driven past endurance.

  He set his jaw, gripped the sword, and jumped.

  Chapter 23

  "Yes, of course, The Matilda will fly,” Merlin said. “You built her from my plans, didn't you?"

  The little man rocked up on his tiptoes. “Now, see here! Not entirely! I did draw heavily on your plans, yes, but it's quite another matter, building a machine that will carry two persons."

  "Why, Mr. Pemmican—"

  "Pemminey."

  "Mr. Pemminey, it is the same design, right down to the last strut! Only larger, and with steel cable.” She bent over the paper on which she'd been scribbling. “I wish I'd thought to use wire from a pianoforte. There were several at Mount Falcon that would have done quite well.” She flourished her pen. “In any event, I think these equations you've done to enlarge the scale are perfectly valid. But wheels for landing ... really, are you quite sure?"

  The sound of someone pounding up the stairs interrupted her, but Mr. Pemminey ignored the noise, plunging into a defense of his wheels. “I suppose you will say that they will not take the stress, but I assure you that I have calculated spoke and diametric ratios down to the fraction."

  The oaken door shook under a heavy blow. The bolt crashed back, and the barrier swung open.

  "Merlin!” Ransom shoved into the room, kicking the door aside. He was all in white: shirtsleeves and waistcoat and pale breeches. Even his face and his boots were marked with chalky dust.

  "Hullo!” She stood up. “Here you are."

  He looked quite wickedly frightening, with a drawn sword in his hand and pistols at his waist. His dark brown hair was windblown, powdered with white. He strode toward her. “Are you all right?"

  "Oh, yes, of course; I'm quite well. Did you get my hedgehog footprint?"

  The hand he placed on the curve of her throat was trembling. He jerked her toward him, his grip pressing painfully into the back of her neck. He kissed her harder than he'd ever kissed her before. She whimpered under the brutal pressure.

  He let her go.

  "Are you all right?” She frowned at him, touching her bruised lips. His movements were odd and temperamental. Beneath the white smudges, he looked as pale as he had after he'd been shot.

  "Oh, God,” he said, wiping at a streak of sweat with his sleeve. “Don't ask."

  "Good day, Your Grace,” Mr. Pemminey said politely, and then added with a trace of reproach, “We thought you would arrive yesterday."

  Ransom looked at him.

  "Never mind that,” Merlin said hastily, unnerved by the expression on Ransom's face. “Can we go now?"

  "Instantly.” He hefted the sword in a graceful sweep. “Stay behind me."

  "You're going to rescue Mr. Pemminey, too. Is that all right? He really didn't know his new servants were the French."

  Ransom was already at the door. “Look sharp, then,” he ordered without turning around. “I'm not coming back for anybody who isn't on my heels. I say stop, you stop. I say go, and you go. No questions."

  He was gone down the spiral staircase almost before Merlin had a chance to grab her bandbox. She heard Mr. Pemminey come panting behind her.

  She reached the bottom just as Ransom hissed, “Stay back!"

  Merlin stopped, but Mr. Pemminey ran into her from behind and pushed her out into the octagonal room at the base of the tower. She sucked in her breath. The large guard was silhouetted in the doorway with a sword sliding noisily out of his sheath.

  Ransom stood still, balanced over his toes, his weapon at the ready. He snarled something that sounded vaguely to Merlin like “Ah, guard,” which seemed an unnecessarily obvious remark. The point of his blade circled. The other man lifted his longer, heavier weapon. Just as he lunged, Ransom moved, lightly and fast. Metal clashed, and the guard's sword went flying.

  Merlin blinked in astonishment. She wanted to ask how Ransom had done that, but he was already closing in on the guard with an intent that looked murderous.

  At the last moment, he swung his sword point aside and brought his knee up to drive it into the man's abdomen.

  "
I ought to turn you on a spit, traitor.” He pressed the point of the weapon on the back of the prostrate man's neck. “Who do you work for?"

  The guard was holding his stomach, heaving for breath. “No—” he gasped. “What d'ye ... mean...” The sword point drew blood. The guard jerked. “Not a traitor!” he yelped.

  "Who?” Ransom demanded.

  "English. English.” The man took a deep breath. “Call him ... Mr ... Bell. I'm not a traitor!"

  "Just a common bandit,” Ransom sneered. He looked up at Merlin. “Go. Outside; turn left. Wait for me behind the rocks."

  "Oh, yes,” Mr. Pemminey said. “Are we taking the shortcut into town?"

  Ransom glanced at him distractedly. “What?"

  "Along the cliff. You came that way, I presume? A most scenic stroll when the weather is so mild, don't you agree?"

  Ransom looked at Mr. Pemminey as if he had lost his mind. “I told you to go. You—Pemminey—take that sword. Carry it if you can. Throw it over the edge if you can't."

  "Oh, no, no, no!” Mr. Pemminey scurried across to lift the guard's weapon. “That won't be necessary. It's not at all heavy. I used to carry twice this much on my way back from market day."

  Holding the rapier in killing threat, Ransom watched his two charges hurry obediently out the door. He looked down at the kneeling guard.

  "Forgive my poor manners,” he said, and swung the sword in a hard reverse, using the handle to deliver his blow. The man slumped. Ransom moved away fast, sorry there was no way to tie him. He wouldn't be unconscious long.

  Merlin and Mr. Pemminey were waiting as Ransom had ordered, where the head of the footpath was hidden by a pile of stone rubble.

  "You first,” he ordered Merlin. “Go slowly; face the cliff. Don't be afraid, and don't look down. I'll be right behind.” He watched her skirt nimbly around the rocks in his ink-stained, stolen breeches. “And for the love of God, be careful!"

 

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