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~Stranje House, British Coast, May 11, 1814~
I run to escape my dreams. Dreams are my curse. Every night they haunt me, every morning I outrun them, and every evening they catch me again. One day they will devour my soul.
But not today.
Not this hour. I ran with Phobos and Tromos, the half wolves, half dogs who guard Stranje House. We raced into the cleansing wind. What is the pace of forgetfulness? How fast must one go?
“Tess! Wait!” Georgiana’s gasps cut through the peace of the predawn air and broke my rhythm.
I slowed to a stop and turned. A moment later, Phobos broke stride, too, and trotted back beside me. He issued a low, almost imperceptible growl, impatient to return to our race. Georgie leaned forward, breathing hard. Her red hair hung in wet ringlets, dampened from the sea spray that had bathed us as we ran along the cliffs. But we were inland now, headed for the woods between Stranje House and Ravencross Manor, and except for the misty ghostlike vapors swirling about us, the air was much easier to take in.
Winded, she gulped greedily for more. “I have to stop. My side hurts.”
Tromos trotted behind her and nipped at Georgie’s heels.
“Ouch!” She jerked her boot away. “Stop that.”
“She wants you to keep running.”
“I’m trying.” Tromos tried to nip her again, but Georgie swatted at her. “Back!”
The dog growled in warning and Georgie withdrew.
“Tromos,” I scolded.
She tilted her head at me, tail wagging, and shook droplets of moisture out of her black fur, quizzical as to why I’d called her off. After all, she was only doing what was best for her pack, training the young one to run faster.
“Walk.” I looped my arm through Georgie’s and tugged her forward, needing to get Georgie moving before Tromos took to nipping again. “Ever since that night on the beach, when she kept you warm, Tromos considers you one of her pack. She’s practicing for when she becomes a mother in a few weeks”
Georgie’s eyes opened wider. “Is that really why she nudges me with her nose so often? She thinks I’m one of her pack?”
“In a sense. Yes.” It was true, but I had to stifle a smile.
Georgie was such an unlikely creature of the forest, especially clad in that bright white cotton dress. It was one of the absurdly frothy concoctions her mother had sent with her to Stranje House. Georgie had ripped the flounce off so that it was short enough to run in, but the fierce white only served to make her appear more flamelike. Georgie is a burst of fire, a blazing beacon in the early morning gray.
I am part forest. Wearing this brown dress, I blend with the woods. My eyes are green as leaves, my hair is dark as shadows on bark, and my skin is as pale as frost. I am Welsh, a daughter of the earth. My mother used to tell me that the spirit of these things, the soil and trees, the rocks and beasts, they call to us. “We are part of this land,” she would say. Only now, my mother lies silent, cloaked in the very earth she spoke of with such love.
I shook away those thoughts.
“Are you well?” Georgie asked. “You went pale for a moment.”
I refuse to speak of my mother’s death, so I ignored her question and mumbled, “Tromos also nudges to show affection.” I pulled Georgie into a faster walk. “Today she’s prodding you to make you keep running, so you’ll learn to go faster and longer. If you don’t want to—”
“I do. I simply can’t. My legs won’t go any farther this morning.”
“Strength is not found in the legs. It’s in the mind.” I run because I fancy I’ll escape my wretched dreams, but with Georgie, it is a different matter. “Why did you want to come running with me this morning anyway?”
Her chest heaved. “You know why.”
I had my guesses, but I wanted her to say it, so I kept mum.
“If I’d been faster that night in London…” She gasped for more air and didn’t finish speaking.
I knew she was thinking of Lord Wyatt, the young diplomatic attaché who had paid a painful price because of her mistakes. But he’d made mistakes, too. Sebastian had known better than to fall in love in his line of work and yet he’d let Georgie steal his heart. She could not be held accountable for that.
I hated to see guilt clawing at her mind. “Stop blaming yourself for what happened in London and Calais. It wasn’t your fault.”
Georgie had been at Stranje House for less than a fortnight when Lady Daneska captured her as part of a plot to put Napoleon back on the throne of France. Nor was it Georgie’s fault that Lord Wyatt was kidnapped when he attempted to rescue her. He couldn’t very well have left her to Lady Daneska’s mercy. Daneska has none. It would’ve meant a cruel and painful death.
Poor Georgie, she’d been sent away to Stranje House innocently believing the scandalous rumors about it being a school that employed brutal methods to reform the manners of troublesome young ladies to make them ready for the marriage mart. And why shouldn’t she? All of England’s high society thought the very same thing.
Only a handful of people in the entire world knew the truth, that Miss Stranje secretly trained gifted young women to serve England as spies. And we’d dared not tell Georgie until we were certain of her loyalty. We knew the price of trusting too easily. After all, Lady Daneska had been one of us, an outcast, a student at Stranje House, and my closest friend. And yet she’d betrayed us, betrayed Britain. She’d run away and aligned herself with Napoleon’s secret Order of the Iron Crown.
“If I’d been faster I might’ve caught up to Daneska, and—”
“No!” I tugged her forward. “You don’t know her like I do. If you’d been faster that night, Lady Daneska would’ve captured you, too. Then she would’ve delivered two hostages to the Iron Crown instead of one.”
“You don’t know that.” She yanked her arm away. “I might’ve been able to lead Captain Grey to them. Or perhaps, if I could’ve stopped their wagon and freed Seb—” She squeezed her eyes closed and trailed off, unwilling to say Sebastian’s name out loud.
I knew she was remembering him as he was in Calais, the day when we rescued him from the Iron Crown’s stronghold. She was seeing the wounds on his chest and back, proof of the torture he’d endured.
I bit my bottom lip to keep from blurting out the fact that if she had caught up to them in London, without a doubt both she and Lord Wyatt would be dead. “Lord Wyatt recovered, Georgie. He’s alive and well, and that’s thanks to you.” I pointed east toward Europe. “Because of you Sebastian is over there with Captain Grey, serving king and country, doing his very best to stop Napoleon.”
But my words failed to console her. She stared off at the pink rim of dawn on the horizon. “It was my fault he was captured in the first place. If I’d caught up to them, maybe I could’ve bested Lady Daneska and spared him all that suffering.” She said it with soft uncertainty, as if her words slid down an oily strand of false hope.
“That’s too many ifs and maybes. Daneska is fast and skilled with a blade. I should know, I sparred with her and lost often enough. You’d had no training yet. I don’t see how—”
“That’s the point, isn’t it?” Her chin jutted out like it always does when she musters her courage. “Madame Cho is training me now, teaching me defensive arts. I’m improving with both the dagger and my fists. But I want to be able to run faster in case … in case someone’s life depends upon it.
“That’s why I insisted on running with you.” She shoved a handful of curls defiantly away from her face. “And now, if you will excuse me, I’m going back to the house. I would rather not be around when you meet up with Lord Ravencross. We’re nearing the spot.” She waved her hand at the opening in the trees, as if I’d forgotten where we were.
The sound of his name on her lips made my foolish heart tumble as if it had lost its footing.
I stared at the clearing up ahead and caught my lip. Except for this gap, thick stands of trees separated his estate from Stranje House’s grounds. This glade was where I usually cut through to run on his pasture. The ground fell more evenly there, or so I told myself. This juncture was also where he liked to exercise his horse, Zeus. It was the place where he used to pretend he didn’t plan to meet me. The place where he’d had the audacity to kiss me several weeks ago.
But things were different now.
“He won’t be there.” My words whirled through the air and came back to me, landing hard, like stones dropping on my chest from a great height.
Georgie denied them with a shake of her head. “Surely, he will—”
“No.” I drew in a deep breath, and made myself face facts squarely. That’s what I try to do, always face the truth. There’s no sense lying to oneself. “He hasn’t come out riding in the early morning, not once since that night in London when I abandoned him on the dock.”
Georgie stepped closer as if to comfort me. “Perhaps he doesn’t know we’ve returned from France.”
I moved back. “Don’t be absurd. It’s been two weeks.”
“Only thirteen days,” she corrected, always accurate, always exact. “He may not have observed…”
Fortunately, she dropped that foolish line of defense, except the pity that took over her expression made things worse.
I wanted to run again. Instead I did something I never do with Georgie. I argued. “You like to put a favorable construction on things, don’t you? Well, in this case, you are just plain wrong.” I didn’t intend for it to sound that harsh, but I couldn’t let her sympathy weaken me.
In less strident tones I added, “He’s taken a dislike of me. And why shouldn’t he? What sort of a young lady takes a running leap off the end of a pier and grabs hold of a moving ship?”
“But you had to.” The loudness of her declaration startled the dogs. Georgie caught her bottom lip and lowered her gaze to the grass and bare patches of dirt between us. “You knew I would need your help in Calais. I was terribly glad you did,” she mumbled. “Lord Ravencross is bound to have understood.”
I doubted that.
I recalled his alarm when I’d slid down from the back of his horse. “What in heaven’s name?” He’d called after me even louder when I’d hitched up my ballgown and dashed down the length of the wharf. “Tess, stop!” But I’d kept running, and as Captain Grey’s ship sailed past the end of the pier, I’d launched myself off the dock. Midair, during those breathless seconds before slamming into the ship, I’d heard Ravencross’s unmistakable roar. I hadn’t known what that awful cry had meant. Had it been fear that I would miss the mark? Shock? Anger? Disbelief?
Whatever it meant, I was fairly certain he would never forgive me for putting him through the turmoil of that night.
I narrowed my gaze at Georgie. “You think he understood, but when you hoisted me aboard you must have seen his face. Did you think he looked pleased that I’d left him in that manner?”
She didn’t answer right away. I didn’t need her to. I could envision his scowl. “Well, no. He looked startled. He probably didn’t realize you knew how to swim. Very few young ladies do. He was worried, I’m sure…” She kicked at a pebble.
With a resigned sigh I said, “And there you have it. The high and mighty Lord Ravencross has turned his heart back into stone. And when it comes to any thought of me, he will have ground my memory to dust.”
A thin wisp of vapor snaked across our path and blew apart as if a blast of wind exploded it. Phobos, his ears peaked and alert, trotted a short distance up ahead and halted.
Something was not right.
The woods were too quiet. Morning larks, who every night tried to hurry sunrise with their song, had hushed. Rabbits, who loved to suckle on grass covered in morning dew, ought to have scampered into the underbrush at our approach, but they were already hiding.
Still as the birds around me, I strained to hear. A breeze blew through the woods in broken patterns. Leaves rustled in stops and starts, disturbed by some intruding presence. I closed my eyes and heard a whicker in the distance, stamping hooves. Horses in the woods. Impatient. Pawing. A snort, followed by the clacking of a metal bit against thick teeth. Horses held at a standstill, not allowed to graze.
Georgie touched my sleeve. “What is it?”
“Hush,” I whispered. Both dogs came silently to my side. I drew the knife from the sheath on my calf.
Phobos and Tromos crouched into hunting position, their shoulders slunk low as we crept forward. I heard a twig break in the distant underbrush and pebbles click under horseshoes as one of the animals moved through the thick stand of trees at the north corner of the field.
In that instant, images flashed through my mind. Blinding splotches of color tumbled and spun in my head. I could no longer see the field or woods. Instead, I was overcome by a burst of black and then an explosion of white. Georgie’s dress? It shimmered away, and in its place I saw Tromos tearing at a man’s leg. Blood. Knives slashing. Lord Ravencross’s face. A searing pain struck my chest. The blast of a gunshot startled me out of the vision.
I gasped and clutched my upper chest to stop the bleeding. Except there was no blood. No wound. It had only been a phantom pain. I opened my eyes wide and stared at the stillness in the predawn field. There were no frightened birds winging away in the sky. Nothing had disturbed the dewy gray-green grass. No shot had been fired, and yet I shook as if it had truly happened.
It had only been a dream.
A useless, indecipherable vision. It was nothing, I told myself. Only a cursed waking dream, like the ones that drove my mother—and her mother before her—to their graves.
I forced myself to breathe slow and even, quieting my heart so I could listen more closely to what was actually happening. One horse moved through the undergrowth in the woods up ahead, and yet I still heard others. Why were they staying back?
A lone rider emerged from the trees and rode toward us. He touched the rim of his felt hat and called out a greeting. “Good day, mam’selles.”
Phobos bared his teeth and growled. I didn’t like the man either. Menace wafted off him like stink from a chamber pot. His eyes landed on Georgie and brightened with a vicious sort of glee, and I knew—they had come for her.
We would never be able to outrun his horse. But the wolves and I could fend him off while she escaped. “Georgie.” I spoke low. “Run,” I urged through gritted teeth. “Go. I’ll hold him off. Get help. Bring weapons.”
She hesitated. “I can’t leave you.”
That was all it took. The blackguard saw her alarm, issued a shrill whistle, and kicked his horse.
“Run!” I ordered, this time in a voice she couldn’t argue with. She took off and, tired or not, she tore for the house as if her life depended upon it. And it did.
Georgie had the presence of mind to scream, a shrill, throaty shriek that sliced through the early morning peace like a bolt of lightning, and she kept at it, yelling for help, loud enough to awaken half the countryside.
Phobos and Tromos streaked toward the horseman.
The man cursed in French and dug in his spurs. Except his mare was no warhorse seasoned for battle. This was a skittish rented hack, wide-eyed with terror at the wolves charging her. She wheeled sideways and reared, snorting and shying to ward them off. Their snarling, snapping jaws gave her no quarter. Phobos circled behind her. The horse kicked, spun, and reared again, throwing her rider to the ground.
Just then, three more horsemen charged out from the underbrush.
Knife in my hand, I took a stance, ready to stop whoever came at us first, the men on horseback, or the fallen rider struggling to escape Tromos, whose teeth were buried in the scoundrel’s leg. I caught a glimpse of another rider galloping across the neighboring field. He was only a speck in the distance, but I would recognize him from a hundred miles away.
Gabriel had ridden out this morning, after all. Surely he could hear Georgie’s screams. But even if he did, Lord Ravencross would arrive too late to save her. And what would he use to fend off the brigands? His bare hands? No, it fell to me.
Phobos and Tromos left off attacking the fallen man and raced to face the three new riders. One of the henchmen was able to steer wide and galloped past them. He ran to the fallen man and dismounted to help, but the injured man shoved him away and pointed in my direction. “Idiot. Leave me. Get her.”
The new arrival squinted at me from under the brim of his sailor’s cap. “That ’un? Nah. When Herself arrived in England, I heared her clear as day. We was to nab the redhead. That ’un ain’t red.” He swiped an arm across his mouth. “An’ she has a knife.”
I glanced over my shoulder at Georgie. She was still too far away from the house. Still too easily caught. The wolves held the other two riders at bay, but how long would that last?
“Imbécile! La fille rousse is halfway to the house. La comtesse also promised extra francs if we did in the Marquis from next door. But I don’t see a lord strolling by, do you?”
His cohort glanced toward Ravencross Manor as if he was actually expected to answer the question. Had they not seen Lord Ravencross galloping in our direction? Perhaps not, since he was riding along the north field beyond the trees. But if they should turn and look behind them … My stomach knotted even tighter. There was no time to consider what might happen if they did. I stepped back, placing myself in a better position to block these scoundrels’ path to Georgie.
The injured man spit on the ground at his companion’s feet. “Think, you sorry excuse for a dog’s bottom. There’ll be no silver for us, and hell to pay if we come back empty-handed. Are you afraid of a little girl?”
“Hoi!” the other man objected. “That’s no little girl—not holding a dagger like that, she’s not.”
I continued edging back, trying to gain some distance.
The one giving the orders cursed under his breath and limped to his companion’s saddlebag. He drew out a pistol and thrust it at the other man. “Take it. Go! Bring one of those girls back alive. I don’t care which.”
The lackey advanced on me, a burlap sack tucked in his belt and the pistol waving unsteadily in front of him.
Tromos yipped as one of the riders lashed at her with his riding crop and shouted to the other rider, who was struggling with his rearing mount. “Cut ’em down.”
“Leave her be,” I shouted. She was pregnant. My pulse quickened and my free hand fisted in anger. I wanted to protect Tromos, but I couldn’t. My focus snapped back to the man fast approaching me.
“Y-you…” He swallowed and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down nervously. “Put down that knife.”
Perhaps I should’ve called the dogs to help me, but that would have freed the two riders to run down Georgie and all would be lost. I couldn’t let them take her, not knowing how Lady Daneska enjoyed torturing her captives. I had to stop them. I wasn’t precisely certain how I would do it, but I knew from my training that every move I made now would count toward her life or death.
Time did a peculiar thing. All the clocks in the world must have stopped as I shifted the knife in my palm and changed my hold in preparation to throw.
The gunman striding toward me seemed to slow down. Birds stopped flapping their wings and hung flightless in the air. The wolves’ deep guttural barks and snarls faded to nothing. Even the horses’ fearful neighing and rearing stopped. Their tails lay stretched out and frozen on the wind. It was as if I possessed all the time in the world to aim and send the blade speeding to its mark.
I threw. The knife streaked in a blaze of silver through the gray morning air and plunged into the gunman’s chest. I lunged to the left in case his gun went off. It didn’t. He glanced down at his chest, stunned, staring at the hilt of my dagger as if a bee had stung him rather than six inches of steel.
“Mon Dieu,” he said, dragging out each vowel, and then he dropped the gun. It tumbled slowly from his fingers, struck the grass, bounced, and fired.
The blast of his pistol awakened the world and set time spinning again. The sun peeked up from the horizon, a crimson fireball trying to burn through the morning haze.
The wolves turned to see what had happened. The other riders fought with their frightened horses, who shied and kicked in a desperate attempt to retreat to the woods.
Across the park, Ravencross bent over Zeus’s neck and broke into so swift a gallop it was as if he were racing God himself.
Everything was going to go very wrong in the next few seconds if I didn’t do something quickly. I needed my knife. I rushed to the fallen gunman, kicked the pistol farther away from him, and wrenched my dagger out of his chest. His eyes opened wide when the blade slid free.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. He wouldn’t die, surely not from that one wound. Or so I thought, until blood spurted out of the vacant gash, and when his mouth moved in a wordless plea, thick wine-colored liquid bubbled out.
I winced, swallowing back the sickness rising in my own throat.
With shaking hands, I wiped the blade on the grass. There was no time for the paralyzing horror to what I’d done. It was nothing new, I told myself. How many deaths had I lived through in my dreams? Hundreds. And yet this felt different. Vastly different. Always in my dreams, I was the one who died, experiencing deaths yet to come, or deaths that might be. But this man was real. He wasn’t an elusive dream. He lay dying because of me, his blood seeping into the ground because of me. My dagger had cut his life in two.
I heard hooves pounding the earth, coming in my direction. I heard Phobos and Tromos leap back into action. I even heard the leader’s limping gait as he ran toward me, shouting in French, telling his men to grab me. Even so, I couldn’t stop wiping the death stain from my dagger.
I began to shake. At least, I think I did. I remember a shudder coursing through me until I heard Gabriel call my name.
“Tess!” His voice seemed to echo to me from far across the field, as if we were in one of the smugglers’ caves that riddled the coastline beneath Stranje House. “Tess!” It rang so forcefully in my ears that it seemed to reach in and shake my very soul. I glanced up just in time to see Gabriel leap Zeus over one of the hedgerows in the north field.
He was coming.
I blinked slowly, letting the sound of him calling my name wash over me. He shouted again, this time with such urgency I realized that if we were to save Georgiana, it was time for me to stand and prepare for another fight.
The roiling sickness inside me ebbed and I tried to stand. But as I rose, a grain sack descended over my head and shoulders. I struggled, swinging my fist and thrusting my blade out, but struck only air.
Something hard cracked against my skull. A roar exploded in my ears.
This was no dream. No vision. No nightmare from which I would suddenly awaken. This time, the bursts of light spinning in my head were real. And the devouring blackness would not wait.
Copyright © 2016 by Kathleen Baldwin