Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Serial: Lord Merville's Whore Part 4


Here's part 4 of Lord Merville's Whore. Some of you may have noticed the lack of post last Sunday. My only excuse was that it was Mother's Day here in the UK, and I was enjoying a day of being "pampered". Anyway, here is this week's offering, in which Thea becomes embroiled in a whole heap of trouble.


Lord Merville's Whore
Part 4
Copyright 2012. Madelynne Ellis. All Rights Reserved.


Indeed, the roads were not safe for woman, man or beast, riddled as they were with potholes and churned with mud and vast lake-like puddles. The drizzle stopped, and a silvered moon bled light onto the moor land tracks. Having failed to secure Pounder’s help, she had few options. Likely, Richard still remained at Frosterley, and the gaol house was unlikely to admit her after dark. Perhaps the Bishop’s Head on the post road would provide a room.

Luckily, Bessie knew the way. She’d made the trek many times in brighter weather. They trotted along the old Roman road, which dipped into the edge of the woodland. Ahead, a light flashed, which she took for the lanterns of the inn, though time seemed so stretched in the dark she wasn’t certain she’d come far enough to see it so close. In the coppice, the light blinked out altogether, and she had to feel her way slowly, the branches overlapping the path. Emerging upon the other side, into a valley of ferns she forded a narrow stream, and realized she had come adrift of the post road and had somehow turned off west so that a rock face loomed to her right. Ahead, beyond the fern banks, if memory served her correct, lay a squat row of abandoned workmen’s cottages, where she’d perhaps find shelter.

A howl rode the wind. A lone dog, stranded like herself. No, a whole pack of them baying at god knows what. Maybe a cart had lost a wheel, not unlikely given the state of the roads. There was no lantern light anymore. Water trickled off the hillside, and cold began to seep through her clothes. Thea pulled her cloak more tightly around her shoulders. The cottages loomed, dark, and to the last missing both shutters and roofs.

She had only a single hand on the reins when the apparition rose from the verge right before the horse’s nose.

Bessie shied, and reared, her eyes showing too much white.
“Whoa!” The leather reins bit into Thea’s fingers. A hand brushed her ankle, raising a scream that sent the mare into an agitated backward dance. Tugging the reins simply trebled the mare’s agitation, making her snort and shake her head. “Whoa, Bessie! Whoa!”

Then she saw eyes, right up close. They were tawny, flecked with green, and stared unblinkingly at her for a second, before Bessie hurtled off the path and into the undergrowth.

Thea saw the low branch as it whispered across the top of the horse’s ears, but sadly, not in time to duck. The wet bark hit her dead across the chest. She hung limply a moment before crashing to earth on her back among the knotted bracken.

Fighting for breath she rolled onto her front, only to sink into the watery ground, which squelched as she gained her knees.

“Bessie,” she croaked. Thea choked up the phlegm in her throat.
From the rustle around her, something big was moving through the undergrowth close by. Something large, running on two feet not four.

A crack sounded over head. Thea ducked, pressing her cheek into the wet earth. The scent of damp vegetation tickled her senses, reminding her of the damp in the local church. She was going to be found and murdered, or worse. Frantically, she edged further into the depths of the bracken, and sat hunched, listening.
Tremulously, she dragged one flintlock pistol from her pocket.

The footsteps hurried onwards.

The wind surged, carrying in its sighs the barks of the dogs again.

Closer, a brittle snap sounded just shy of her position. Frantic, she gripped the pistol tighter. On the horizon, where the track ran alongside the rock face, yellow lights bobbed like willow-the-wisps. Nearer, a solid shadow overlapped the murky fronds of the plants, ill-defined, but clearly male, and wearing a tricorn hat, which he’d pulled low over his brow. His gaze twitched back up slope towards the road.

“No, time… Bastard.”  He collapsed onto his knees in a shaft of moonlight. That’s when she realized he was injured. A severe slash to his sleeve had caused the fabric to gape, so the cream linen of his shirt peeped through the darker cloth of his coat. His arm hung limp, dark spots of blood steadily dripping from his cuff.

Ignoring the wound, he ripped open a small sack with his teeth and tipped the contents onto the leaf litter.

Jewels—stones that made her spray of emeralds look like a string of glass beads. Pearls shone with the luster of the moon. A jewel-encrusted bangle, cut in a mediaeval style tumbled across the spongy earth. A thief! She’d stumbled into the path of a thief, and a good one if his bag of spoils were any indication.

Thea screwed her eyes tight. What if he spotted her? With the hounds on his tail, he’d not want any witnesses to his actions.

She peeped at him again, and found him busy working with his teeth and a dull knife blade, prying gemstones from their settings. He swallowed several of the smaller stones, then scooped the rest back into the sack, and thrust it along with another into the hollow beneath the roots of a nearby tree.

Maybe he knew the area well enough to recognize it. No, he paused and slashed an S-shaped notch out of the bark. They might catch him, but there’d be nothing on him to prove his guilt. Then to her horror, he crashed forward straight towards her. Their eyes met through the camouflage of ferns, his, the same bird-like tawny that she’d seen on the path.

“No.” Even as the cry died on her lips, another hammering shot pierced the night, and he jerked unnaturally, his tongue lolled, slack over his lips, then he flopped on to the ground before her, blood bubbling from his nose and mouth.

Deeper and deeper into the shroud of vegetation, Thea pushed herself backwards on her rear, oblivious to the snags on her clothing, until her back hit a boulder bringing her to a sharp halt. Pressed low to the earth, she could still see his dark form, so still against the sodden ground. Maybe if she stayed low and quiet no one would notice her. Her riding habit was the same emerald-green as the night time vegetation. They weren’t seeking her. Perhaps their focus would remain upon their quarry.

One of the dogs arrived first. It pushed its nose into the crease at the back of the man’s neck, where his shaggy hair curled over his collar, then raised its head and bayed in triumph. The pack assembled around it, only to be torn away by men who took their places.

Thea drew her knees to her chest and hid her face. Take him and leave. She kept her eyes closed tight.

“Turn him over.”

The gasp left her throat before she’d realized she had any control over the sound. Luckily, it seemed to go unheard, as the men scrambled to do Thieftaker Stark’s bidding.

Strangely drawn too, Thea craned to see him, until she lay flat against the cool moist earth. She saw his boots first, but there was no mistaking him. Lamplight cast teasing shadows over the handsome planes of his face, masking the scar, but making the pupil of his good eye glitter. His coat fanned over his slender hips, a dark contrast to the brocade of his waistcoat, which burnished like the coppery embers of a fire whenever the lamp cast light upon it. He poked his square-toed boot into the fallen man’s side, prompting a cry that seared her eardrums, and continued to reverberate in her head long after the actually sound had faded.

“The spoils, where are they?”

Grint slouched at Stark’s feet, and pried open the thief’s fingers. “Nothing here, sir.” He moved on, roughly searching the man’s clothing. “Nothing. He’s stowed it or passed it on.”

“Has he, indeed? Then he has friends near.” Stark swirled around, and took several paces directly for the tree that harbored the bounty, but he seemed not to see the pale curl of freshly exposed white wood. “String him up. Let’s see if we can’t shake them loose.”

“Sir.”

No! Dear God, no. Not here, not now. Surely he wouldn’t commit this travesty of justice in the Lord Bishop’s name.

The man’s heart must barely be beating but she still couldn’t face seeing them choke the life from his body. Once as a child, she’d witnessed a public execution: Handsome Jack, a callow youth, barely grown into his spindly frame. She’d watched him jig at the end of a rope, and the tears she’d shed had carved grooves in her soul. How callous the crowd who’d cheered at his struggles, and sighed only with disappointment when he breathed his last.

She’d vowed there and then, that she’d never willing watch another man swing. Sheep rustling and larceny be damned. Death was never just when it came at the end of a hangman’s rope.

And whatever this man’s crime, the law required a fair trial. Thieftaker Stark was one man not a duly appointed judge and jury.

Tremulously, she cracked one eyelid.

Relief released the air from her lungs, when she saw that the thief’s throat lay devoid of a hemp noose. Instead, he was bound about both wrists and ankles and spread-eagled upright between two trees. His head lolled, and a bloody ring about his lips made him seem like a vengeful, murderous ghost.

Stark jabbed him in the stomach with the tip of his beribboned cane. “Wake up, Master Spiggot.”

Blood, but no sound trickled from the man’s open mouth.

Spiggot! So, this was he. She’d heard his name as a whisper on the wind. He was one half of the daring pair who had accosted Dorothea Crewe, the Lord Bishop’s wife as she crossed from Durham castle to the Cathedral last winter. Recklessly bold, the bill posters called them. There was just 200 yards or so between the two buildings and yet they and seemed to make the robbery effortless.

Stark leaned a fraction closer as he if he strained to catch whispered words. “You try my patience, Mr. Spiggot. Tell me, where is your partner now? Has the rascal flown leaving you to my mercy? Do not think he will come for you. Only death will separate us now. Your death, Mr. Spiggot.” He jabbed forth with his cane again, but the restraints prevented Spiggot from bending, instead he released another pitiful moan.

“Have mercy… have mercy… Dear God, have mercy.” The words slipped in an almost silent stream from Thea’s lips. She cupped her hands over her mouth and nose, oblivious to the ground water that had now soaked through the cloth at her elbows.

With a desperate roar, Spiggot wrenched his head upright into Stark’s face, sending the Thieftaker into a backwards pitch.

“Goddamn you!” Stark clutched a lacy kerchief to his bloodied nose, and kicked Grint, who drove a meaty fist into Spiggot’s kidneys. The highwayman sagged like a wind-ravaged scarecrow.

Stark sprang forward again, and his white, kid-clad fingers curled like chilled shrimps around the man’s jaw. “Try me too hard and I’ll feed you the shot from my pistol one ball at a time, and after each slides down your throat you’ll beg to tell me a secret.”

“Pox take you!” Spiggot spat in his face. “I’ll tell you nothing.”

Stark wiped away the bloody spittle, discarding the handkerchief on the ground. Then he gripped his fist tight to his chest, as if determined recapture his composure. “I see a leaden diet holds no fear for you. But then perhaps you are already used to swallowing…” His words seemed to hang crisp in the air, while the lines of his scar creased into an exaggerated smile. “No matter. I can always gut you for the gems. Enough of this trifling. Strip him!”

Two thugs led by Grint, sliced through the thongs at the back of Spiggot’s coat, and tore both it, and the shirt below, clean off. Spiggot’s wan flesh shone in the moonlight; already he seemed indistinct, half in this world and half in the grave. Nauseous surged up from her stomach at the sight of the hole torn in the flesh of his shoulder. The wound was like a black cataract that oozed sticky rivulets of tar. Thea stared, her eyes strangely dry, unable to sob, though just the thought of his pain made her wince and shiver as though icy needles were being pressed into her skin.

“Breeches too.” Stark insisted. “I find men more eager to compromise when there vulnerabilities are properly displayed.”

Spiggot didn’t shiver, though Thea trembled anew at each movement Stark made. The wind seemed to bite into her wet clothing as he stroked a gloved hand across the pale curve of Spiggot’s rear, the touch eerily reminiscent of the way Richard had fondled her before driving himself deep between her thighs.

No wonder the servants had fled Frosterley. Assault would likely have been the only reward they gained from Stark for their loyalty.

“Tell me.” Stark’s sibilant hiss crept through night air like a winter chill. “Where is Master Fox? Much as I’d like to suppose your legendary partnership a mere phantasm, I know you weren’t alone tonight. I heard the whinny of two horses on the road.”

“Mistaken.”

"What is that?” Stark clove to the man’s back as if straining to hear his words. “Again. You say I’m mistaken? Do you think I’m mistaken, Grint?”

“No, sir.”

Slowly, Stark circled to Spiggot’s fore. “That’s because you were accompanied.” His voice dropped as soft as a lover’s. “Now, tell me, where has your partner gone with those jewels?” He drove his thumb into the wound on Spiggot’s shoulder, starting the flow of blood afresh.

Thea covered her ears, but the scream rang on in her head.

“Fox or the diamonds, give me one or both.”

“Nay. I’m dead anyway.” Spiggot sagged so heavily in his bonds now that his shoulders seemed stretched wide of their sockets, and his legs were buckled beneath him. If not for the ropes, he’d have fallen face first into the bracken, as it was, his chin dropped forward onto his chest.

Stark raised his chin again. “Dead? No. Stay with me now.” He stooped and retrieved the handkerchief he’d earlier discarded. Gently, he pressed the lacy folds to the wound in Spiggot’s shoulder. “I can help give you the grand send off you deserve. You want that don’t you? Bright Nicky Spiggot, folkmote hero, a danger to the end. You want a fitting final moment, don’t you, not just to cease face down in a puddle on a godforsaken hillside?”

“Chicken.” The effort of forming the word caused him to cough up great wells of blood.

“No, they’ll say you were brave to the end.”

He tried again, but the words were lost within the gurgle of blood and phlegm.

Thea exhaled in disbelief. “Fool! Don’t speak.” Stark would give him nothing but a quicker passage to the grave for his turncoatery. “Preserve your loyalty,” she pleaded.

Spiggot opened his mouth again, but an ear-splitting thunderclap drowned out any sounds he made. Thea flinched, and then turned her head to the rock-face above her. She caught only the impression of a shadow. Whoever had fired the shot had done so and fled.

In the small clearing, Spiggot hung still in his bonds. The other men had scattered like mice, still making alarmed squeaks as they darted through the ferns.

“Find him. Bring me, Fox.” Stark’s cry, seemed to rally them, and slowly they started up hill, into the swell of the wind, which carried the moist metallic wash of freshly spilled blood. “And gut Spiggot for those gems.”

*****
Stark swore as he reached the top of the bank of ferns. He swore so vehemently that even Grint raised one of the hirsute caterpillars that passed for his eyebrows.

“The men’ll catch him sir.” Grint jostled the lantern as he mounted his horse, which briefly illuminated his cherry-red face.

Perhaps. Stark’s guts said otherwise. Exercising providence simply wasn’t enough to catch both Spiggot and Fox on the same night. Fox was far too bloody wily. He was the brains behind their flamboyant robberies, the one it seemed they needed to track down if he was ever going to please the Bishop by returning his wife’s gems. Something told him that wasn’t going to happen tonight. He’d had too great a head start, and despite Grint’s assertion, all he could see of his men was them bumbling about in the dark with no direction.

How had Fox even sneaked up close enough to put a bullet through his partner’s heart without being seen? They’d supposedly scoured the area in the run up to Spiggot’s capture. Of course, it didn’t take much to outwit an idiot, and his men were employed primarily for their brawn, rather than their brains. A little too much of the latter proved dangerous. Thief taking was a trying business and Stark didn’t like anyone paying too close attention to his methods, nor did he care for anyone with too much eye on promotion.

He irritably wetted his lips. They should have realized that Fox wouldn’t have gone to earth without his partner. Some might call it loyalty; Stark suspected that shooting had been more to do with ensuring Spiggot’s silence, than delivering a mercy killing. Had Spiggot been about to blab? What had he said? Nothing that Stark could make sense of as a hint or betrayal.

“Abandon the search,” he said.

“But, sir?” Grint’s pudgy cheeks quivered as he spoke. “They’re on his tail. They’ll have him in just a tick.”

“They don’t even know in which direction he’s fled. He’s long gone. Call them back, and have Spiggot delivered to the coroner. There’s nothing more we can learn from his carcass.”

Stark jerked his horse towards the road. Enough of this tomfoolery, they needed a different plan, and he’d better come up with it fast.

“Where are you off to, sir?”  Having bellowed at the men to come hither, Grint violently sneezed. Stark watched him in disgust as he wiped his nose up the sleeve of his coat. “Are we to meet at the Cock and Spindle?”

“Tomorrow.”

“There’s bound to be someone who’ll squawk. Fox has to be holing up somewhere local.”

“Perhaps.” Right now, he had an uncomfortable meeting with Mary Vane to get through. Not that it was her he was worried about, rather her husband. Fox had some bloody nerve, first the Lord Bishop’s wife and now the Vane’s of Raby, next it would be Mark Shafto’s wife, and then the matter would likely be out of his hands. The High Sheriff had his own crew of villains, he didn’t need Stark, and though lacking the same clout as the Bishop, when it came to law and order, his word was generally final. “By all means try, you may send word to my lodgings if you discover anything.” Not that he expected to hear anything worth his attention. Grint and crew would only approach the scum languishing in the local whore houses and swilling ale in the Cock and Spindle, folk that had no interest in seeing Fox caught unless there was a hefty reward involved. Fox prayed on the titled and the wealthy. He provided entertainment to the masses with his daring exploits. No—they wouldn’t give him up, even if they knew who he was, and Stark wasn’t so sure they did. He’d hunted highwaymen before; none of them had ever vanished between robberies quite so effectively as Fox. Normally, there were at least a few idiots who’d boast of an acquaintance with the thief, but with the exception of Spiggot, who was now dead, Fox lacked acquaintances of any kind, which made him suspicious—very suspicious.

How did the bastard always know when people would be on the road?

“Grint, have watches set on the major coaching inns, this bastard must be keeping track of travelers.” He might not hole up at a hostelry, but he surely scouted them for potential prizes.
*****

Silence.

Silence so profound, it seemed every living thing in the copse was paying its respects. Thea stared numbly at the dark spatter of blood across the leaves. Stark and his coterie were gone, along with Spiggot’s mangled body, though she still caught imagined glimpses of him suspended between the trees and backlit by the paltry moonlight.

The drizzle returned, turning to a full on downpour by the time she gained the road. The cold rivulets ran under her clothing, which already heavy with rain, made every step a tremendous effort. She needed to rest, but she needed to be free of this place more. It was soiled and scarred. She stood on a twig and the resulting crack brought her to a cowering halt. Trembling, her stomach lifting in a nauseous cycle, she peered frantically about for signs of Spiggot’s killer, or Stark’s return, but the only other living thing in sight, was Bessie, who stood quietly cropping plants at the side of the road.

The mare whinnied in greeting and rolled her eyes at Thea’s reappearance, but mercifully stood patiently as Thea made several frustrating attempts to mount. Bessie seemed higher, and her sodden skirts made lifting her legs to the stirrups and over the horse’s back an act of strength as well as agility. Coupled with that, the cold had seeped into her bones, adding to the aches in her muscles already caused by Richard’s rough loving.

Once finally astride, Thea leant against the horse’s neck and sobbed.

There was no clear intention in her motion. Bessie led, which perhaps was wise, as Thea had lost her bearings. The land around seemed unfamiliar, full of rocks and mist. After a short ascent, they dropped into a concealed valley. Thea pulled her cloak tighter about her shoulders. Here the wind whistled between the rocks, carrying in its embrace the moans of the damned. She heard Spiggot, and her father. It seemed she was a child again; her small hand clasped tightly in that of her sire’s as he explained why hanging was both necessary and just.

They’d have hanged Spiggot. She knew it without a doubt. In fact, Stark had promised it. And likely it was deserved, if the ending of his life somehow compensated those he’d accosted on the road.

The narrow track she rode dissolved into a springy turf. They followed the bank of a bubbling stream, the sound strangely soothing, so that her eyelids were soon drooping in the same manner as her hat. It was only when her head hit the horses neck again that she jerked awake. Before them a dark tower rose up like a singly thorny stalk, the moon a bright disc above its roof, two or three nights shy of full. The rain had ceased and just a few dark clouds scudded overhead.

“Oh, Bessie, you’ve brought us home.”

Well, not precisely home. They were just beyond the border of the present Frosterley estate, facing the Roost, a dilapidated folly that had once been part of the Roche family holdings. Once the secret trysting spot of Phillip’s great uncle and Lady Maria Merville, it had gained an unsavory reputation as the sight of Maria’s suicide, and been largely abandoned by two successive generations of owners. Still, it would offer a little more shelter than they currently enjoyed.

Thea slid from the saddled and squelched across to the tower door, through a crop of pink crowned thistles. The weathered iron ring seared her fingers with cold, making the joints ache. Still, she gave it a hefty wrench. Expecting no return on her effort, her heart raced when the latch lifted and the door swung inwards on screeching hinges.

The moonlight barely pierced the gloom within. Shutters blocked the arched windows. Beneath her feet, the stone was buckled. There were no furnishings, save for a hay trough in one corner. “It’s not much, Bess.” She patted the mare’s velvety nose. Still, it was dry and some shelter from the wind. “Shall we chance it?”
Inside, she tugged her baggage from Bessie’s back along with the saddle, then curled against the warm leather and fell into restless sleep.

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