Midsummer moon, p.36
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       Midsummer Moon, p.36

           Laura Kinsale
 

  She disappeared. He had a sudden, wrenching fear that he would never see her again. That cliff ... oh, God, that cliff...

  He shoved the thought away and turned to Pemminey. “You next. No, get rid of that damned sword—Christ, do you know where you're going, man? You'll never make it with that!"

  "Oh, I know the way perfectly well, I assure you. Since I was a babe in arms.” Mr. Pemminey turned, lifting the sword like a walking stick, and strolled after Merlin.

  Ransom looked back toward the tower, and then the gatehouse. There was no sign yet of alarm. They were damnably lazy and sure of themselves, these fellows. It made him uneasy. He sheathed his sword and moved between the rocks.

  Wind shoved at him. The cliffs came into view, white rock and dizzying fall. He put out his hand, grabbing at a stone face. The path descended in front of him, with Mr. Pemminey a short distance ahead, moving slowly and comfortably along it. Merlin was far away already, at the apex of the ravine. She wasn't following Ransom's orders at all. She moved quickly, casually, carrying her bandbox under one arm and not even touching the cliff with the other.

  The seagull swept up from below, hovering beside her an instant. She stopped, leaning out, and held up her hand as if to offer a perch. The bird fell away, swooping outward, soaring below Ransom to become a speck against the towering white cascade of the cliff.

  Without hesitation, Merlin turned back to the path. She took a little running step and cleared the crevice.

  Ransom looked down at his feet. He ordered one to move.

  It did not. Only his fingers shifted, clutching harder at the rock.

  He coughed to clear his throat. His heart was beating so hard that he could not hear the wind. He put up his free hand, as if to shelter his face from the glare, but the blinder was so comforting that he held it there, turning his face aside.

  He tried to let go of the rock. He stood there, not quite shaking, looking at the back of his hand.

  A diversion, he thought suddenly.

  That was what he ought to be doing. He ought to be creating a diversion. It wouldn't do to have the guards discover Merlin and Pemminey exposed on the cliff.

  A feeling of vast relief jolted through him.

  "Pemminey!” He put both hands on the stone, leaning hard against it. Careful not to look outward, he called after the old eccentric again.

  Pemminey was only a few yards down the path. Ransom waited, braced against the stone, until the other man had worked his way back.

  "Here—” Ransom wrenched at his right hand, pulling off his gold signet. “My horse is hidden down the hill. Leave my wife in East Dean. Take this to Colonel Torrance at the Eastbourne encampment. Tell him to get back here with a detachment on the double."

  "Your wife?” Mr. Pemminey tucked the sword handle under his arm and examined the ring. “Oh, you mean Miss Lambourne, I expect. She did say she was a duchess. But pardon me—I thought you were coming with us?"

  "No. I mean to hold them off until you get away."

  Pemminey blinked, looking around nervously. “Hold who off?"

  "The guards.” Ransom backed up a step.

  "Oh dear. Have they seen us? I thought we'd quite slipped away."

  "Go on. I'll take care of it."

  "But they have weapons. Guns. Shouldn't you just come along with us?"

  "No,” Ransom said.

  "And aren't there rather a lot of them? Ten or twelve, I believe. And only one of you. Really, Duke, I think you might consider coming now."

  "Go!” Ransom exclaimed harshly. “Get away from here."

  Mr. Pemminey patted his throat. “Pray don't shout at me.” He slipped the ring into his pocket. “I'll do as you say, but I really think—"

  Ransom left him thinking. He gripped his sword and turned back toward the tower, his boots scraping as he vaulted the jumble of rocks. He moved quickly to the shadow of the tower's wall and leaned there, looking back. Mr. Pemminey had disappeared. From here, Ransom could not see the cliff face.

  He waited, watching around the curve of the tower. Eventually, long after Mr. Pemminey had gone, the battered guard stumbled out from the tower room, rubbing the side of his head.

  Ransom made his move.

  "Hold!” he ordered, stepping out from the wall and aiming a pistol at the guard's middle. As the man whirled, Ransom shifted quickly, putting himself between the guard and the door. He backed inside and aimed a shot at the man's feet. As dust and a shout erupted, Ransom kicked the door shut and lunged to bar it.

  He heaved the wooden plank into place. In the dim light from a high window he strode in a circuit of the octagonal room, looking for other entrances. There was one door, a continuation of the spiral stair downward. He peered down into the dark, decided it most probably went nowhere, and barred it, too. He busied himself reloading his pistol.

  More shouts came from outside. A gunshot thudded into the solid oaken door.

  Ransom grinned. “Fire away,” he muttered, packing powder into the gun barrel.

  Another shot hit the window, shattering leaded glass. It tinkled harmlessly to the floor.

  He congratulated himself on an excellent diversion, picturing Merlin and Mr. Pemminey riding safely away while her abductors drove themselves to a frenzy trying to attack him in an unassailable position. He'd tease them; keep them busy until the infantry arrived. Perhaps if he was lucky, this Mr. Bell himself might be in the captured crew.

  But Merlin was safe, if she'd made it around the cliff. That was what mattered.

  Yes, a most excellent diversion.

  He hefted the pistol and moved toward the stair. Just as his boot mounted the first step, there was a rattle, and a faint female voice.

  "Ransom?” it asked hopefully. “Are you in there?"

  He kicked back off the stair, whirling. The wooden rattle came again from the barred cellar door. Ransom flung it open.

  Merlin looked up at him from the dark. “Aren't you coming?"

  "Are you mad?” he shouted. “What are you doing here?"

  "They're shooting. I couldn't come in the other door. Mr. Pemminey told me about this one—there's an old side passage that comes out among the rocks at the edge, you see."

  He grabbed her arm and jerked her up inside, slamming the door behind her. “Good God, you crazy—” He stopped, finding words sufficient to the occasion beyond his grasp. “The devil take it,” he grated finally. “Did Pemminey get out?"

  "Yes, I left him outside the wall. He said you gave him instructions. I hope he can manage to mount your horse. He says he isn't very knowledgeable about horses."

  Ransom looked toward the main door. The gunshots were silent for the moment. He suspected the men outside were looking for something to make a battering ram. “Pray God he can mount. You'll have to stay with me now."

  "Oh, no. We can go right along the way I came. No one saw me. I don't believe these mutton-headed French even know about it. It's quite hidden by the cliff edge."

  Ransom looked at her. Her hair was pinned in a sagging bun, with windblown wisps curling around her face. In her breeches and baggy shirt, she appeared small and adorably kissable. There was already combat-induced excitement singing in his brain, and passion rode just below the turbulence. He released her and stepped back. “You go."

  She put a hand on the door. When he did not move, she slanted a glance toward him. “Are you coming?"

  "No. I'll keep them busy."

  Her lips parted. “But they're shooting."

  "I'll be safe enough in here. Go on. Quickly."

  She frowned. Her mouth took on a stubborn set. “I can't go without you. You're rescuing me."

  "Yes,” he snapped, “and I'd be making a damned lot better job of it if you'd see your way clear to do a thing I tell you."

  She drew herself up. “I'm staying with you."

  "Hell,” he said. “Hell and damnation."

  "Just a moment ago you said I should have to stay with you."

  Shouts and scuffles
floated through the window. Something heavy slammed into the door.

  "Fine.” Ransom grabbed Merlin's elbow and shoved her toward the stairs. “Up!” He put his hands on her rump, distracted momentarily by a flash of appreciation for the fit of his pants, and then gave her a push.

  Merlin yelped, banging her shins on the next higher step, and scrambled on without further instructions. At the top of the stairs she stumbled into Mr. Pemminey's tower room, panting hard. Ransom came pounding up behind her. He did not stop to catch his breath, but grabbed the trestle table and dragged it toward the door, ignoring the way papers went flying.

  Before Merlin could scrabble up the piles of notes and books, he overturned the whole table, throwing everything in a shower to the floor. With a hollow scrape and a crash, he sent the heavy trestle tumbling down the spiral stairs, where it wedged in the first turn. Two benches, the wooden settle, and a chair went after it.

  An explosion of splintering wood echoed up the stairs as the door below gave way, and then came the sound of many boots. Ransom pulled out his pistol and stood at the top of the stairs, looking down. Merlin twisted her hands together. She jumped at the crash of gunfire from below, and saw Ransom's mouth jerk a little, but nothing made it past his barrier.

  He leaned his shoulder against the open door at the top of the stairs, keeping watch.

  Merlin went to a window, pushing open the leaded glass.

  "Careful,” Ransom said. “Stay back a bit. Can you see anything?"

  She squinted, craning back and forth to get a view from the narrow casement. “There's someone riding in the front gate."

  "Uniforms?"

  "No. He isn't wearing a uniform, I don't think. Just a dark coat.” She tilted her head. “He's getting off now. He's walking out here ... The French are running up to talk to him."

  "Hah. Perhaps we've lured the mastermind for this little project. The mysterious Mr. Bell, no doubt."

  "No,” Merlin said. “He looks more like Mr. Peale to me."

  "What?” he exclaimed.

  She lifted her knee into the embrasure, moving closer to the window. “Yes—I believe that's who it is. Has he come to rescue me, too, do you suppose?"

  "That meddling little ass—” Ransom bit off his words with a sudden sharp hiss. “Peale. Good God.” He strode over to the window and thrust Merlin aside. “Oh, my God. Peale."

  "I must say, that's rather brave of him, to ride right in among them,” Merlin said. She stood on tiptoe to look over Ransom's shoulder. “But he seems to be getting along with everyone quite well."

  "Too damned well by far,” Ransom exclaimed. “I'll see him hang for this."

  "Oh, but I'm sure he doesn't mean to upset you. You know how hard he tries to please."

  "Aye,” Ransom said through his teeth. “It makes sense now, doesn't it?” He leaned forward and shouted, “Peale."

  The man far below looked up. “Your Grace!” he called, with a sweeping bow. “How convenient to find you here. I wished to speak with you."

  Ransom made a growling noise in his throat. He did not answer.

  "Come down, Your Grace,” Mr. Peale called. “Let us have a drink and be civilized."

  Ransom narrowed his eyes. Merlin could see the pulse beating furiously in his throat. “Nay,” he shouted, “I can smell the carrion from here. It puts me off my appetite."

  Mr. Peale's thin figure stiffened. “Come down,” he repeated.

  "Why?"

  "As well now as later.” He moved his hand, and one of the men grouped around him took a shot at the window. The blast echoed among the ruins. “As well alive as dead."

  Ransom pulled back. He scowled at Merlin and then at the door with a thoughtful, calculating look.

  "Ransom,” she whispered, “is Mr. Peale one of them?"

  "I venture to say he's the leader of ’em. Blind fool that I've been, to miss it all along. He worked with you often, didn't he? He must have—"

  Merlin gasped. “And he copied all my notes. He brought them here for Mr. Pemminey to use."

  "Damn! Do you mean Pemminey's already built a speaking box?"

  She waved her hand. “No, of course not. Not those notes. That was to be a secret, wasn't it? No, listen, Ransom—” She grabbed his arm. “Mr. Pemminey's built a flying machine. From my plans!"

  He gave her a startled look and then a stare. After a moment, a slow grin spread across his face. He threw back his head and let out a howl of laughter. “A ... flying machine!” he exclaimed. “Do you mean they thought ... everything's been for a...” He put his hands over his face and went into another shout of amusement. “The abductions—all your notes he copied—were for...” Ransom kept trying to speak and spluttering off into more guffaws. When finally he caught his breath, he said weakly, “Ah, God—what poetic justice!"

  "What's wrong with you?” Merlin demanded. “This is serious."

  "Where are they? These notes. All this?” He swept his arm toward the mess on the floor.

  "Yes. I kept telling you, if you'd just have let me move them before you overturned the table."

  "And he's actually built the thing?"

  "Yes. It's upstairs on the parapet."

  He leaned back to the window. “Peale!” he shouted. “Let's make a bargain."

  The little huddle of men in the courtyard below broke up. Several of them ran off in various directions. Mr. Peale looked up. “What kind of a bargain?"

  Merlin didn't think he sounded very interested.

  "Let us go"—a trace of mockery hung in Ransom's voice—"and I'll tell you what Merlin was really working on."

  "Something else beyond the aviation machine?” Peale answered Ransom's irony with a laugh of his own. “Ah, but all the more reason why I'm afraid I can't let her and Pemminey go, Your Grace. They're too valuable to waste, and a danger, left in your too-capable hands. Who can tell what other technological wonders your wife might dream up in that marvelous head of hers for you to put to use?"

  Merlin clutched Ransom's arm, her eyes widening. “What does he mean by that—that he can't let us go?"

  He glanced at her and patted her hand. “Nothing to worry over. He must think Pemminey's still here. That's good. If he made it to Eastbourne, God willing, we'll have the infantry here while Peale's standing around talking."

  "Oh. I hope he didn't fall off your horse."

  Ransom turned back to the window. “I hope so, too. I think Peale may have an idea something's in the works."

  "Well, we can always use the flying machine, if he won't let us out any other way."

  He patted her hand again absently. “It won't come to that."

  "All of you,” Peale called. “All of you come down. And no one will be hurt."

  Ransom lifted his pistol and fired it out the window. “That's what I think of that idea,” he muttered.

  The men below ducked and scattered. One clutched at his shoulder and sank down behind a rock. The rest of them moved out of range.

  "Damerell,” Mr. Peale shouted in a rougher voice than before, “if you have a care for your wife, send her out."

  Ransom's lip curled. He lifted the other pistol and fired it.

  Merlin chewed her finger. She'd come to dislike the sound of gunfire excessively. While Ransom was reloading, she peered out the window herself.

  The jumbled courtyard seemed much emptier of men than it had before. While she watched, a guard emerged from the gatehouse. He dodged around the piles of stone and ran up to Mr. Peale. For a moment the reverend stood listening while his aide gestured wildly, pointing east.

  "Ah,” Ransom said, looking up. “They'll have spotted our reinforcements arriving."

  Mr. Peale turned his face back up to their window. “Last chance, Damerell! I want all of you."

  Ransom said something about Mr. Peale and his mother that Merlin didn't understand. But it sounded quite impolite.

  Peale bowed. He shouted, “We've been storing munitions here, Your Grace. There's seven tons of black powder in
the foundations of this place."

  "Oh, dear,” Merlin said. “I forgot about that."

  Ransom slanted a look toward her. “You're joking."

  "Will they blow us up, do you think?"

  His eyes widened. “You're joking. He's got seven tons of powder in the cellar?"

  "I didn't count the kegs,” she said apologetically. “There's a lot."

  Ransom turned abruptly to the window. “Peale,” he shouted, “I'm sending Merlin out."

  "Wait,” Merlin exclaimed. “Are you coming, too?"

  All the humor had left his face. Beneath the streak of chalk on his cheekbone, his mouth was grim. He touched her throat. “No. I can't, love. You do what he says—I don't think he'll hurt you."

  "You aren't going to stay here?” she cried. “And let them blow you up?"

  He shook his head. “Maybe that won't happen. Come on, I'll move as much of that barrier as I can, and you slide through. They'll be helping from below."

  "But Ransom—” Her voice rose frantically. “Why won't you come?"

  He took both her arms and kissed her, then pushed her away. “You're a little fish. Unfortunately, I'm a rather large one. I know too much, Merlin."

  "Too much about what?"

  "Everything. The war. You just do exactly as Peale says, and get down flat if anyone starts shooting. Please.” He gripped her arm. “Please don't make this hard."

  "But ... the gunpowder ... Ransom!"

  He gave her a bitter smile. “I'm counting on it being damp. Belonging to the French, and all."

  "It's not damp!” She was resisting him every step. “I won't go without you. We'll use the flying machine!"

  "Suicide is not the answer."

  She set her feet at the top of the stairs. “Then why are you staying?"

  "Merlin—"

  "I won't go!” she cried. “I won't go without you!"

  He let go of her, and dropped down into the staircase. He pulled one of the chairs free and tossed it back up into the room. “She's coming,” he yelled, and someone answered something, a muffled agreement from below.

  "I'm not.” Merlin sat down in the middle of the floor. Another chair clattered up from the stairwell and fell over. Ransom was working on the settle when the voice from the lower stairs spoke again.

 
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