A Death in Sheffield
She’d been having disturbing and disjointed dreams, and heard his voice with an enormous sense of relief. On several previous occasions she’d tried to lift her eyelids, but they would not respond; this time she tried again and blinked, focusing on Droughm, who sat on the bed beside her, watching. He was worried, and so she smiled. “Hallo.”
“Hallo.” He ran his hand along her arm. “Are you all right?”
“Perfectly,” she said, her tongue thick.
“You’ll not thank me, Artemis, but I’m afraid we must leave soon.”
“Right.” She propped herself up on an elbow, and as the movement caused her head to ache abominably, she paused, willing the pain to subside. She noted they were in a small, low-ceilinged chamber, with a banked fire burning in the grate. Blinking, she tried to remember if she knew where they were.
“We’re at an inn near Epping Forest,” he informed her. “I’d like to leave out the window, if you are able.”
“Right,” she said again. “I’m sorry, Pen—my head hurts and I cannot think.”
“You were drugged,” he said in a grim tone. “I should probably try to find you some hair of the dog, but it will have to wait.”
But Artemis had made a much more interesting discovery. “Did we get married?” She wore a wedding band on her ring finger, and stared at it in bemusement.
“We are pretending to be married; I am not about to allow you out of my sight. Can you stand, do you think?”
“Yes,” she replied, and hoped it was true. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, and he steadied her as she stood, trying to control her heaving stomach and her pounding head. Droughm was dressed in plain leather breeches and a corduroy jacket; he looked very un-Earl-like—except for the fact he wore an aura of suppressed rage that did not bode well for the peasantry.
“Steady—shall I carry you?”
“I’m much better,” she assured him. “Truly, Pen.”
“They will pay.” He said it in a grim tone, as he lifted the curtain aside to watch out the window for a moment.
“I am glad to hear it.” She tried not to sway, and pressed her palms to her temples to ease the aching. “A firing squad comes to mind.”
Glancing at her, he instructed, “I’ll drop down and then catch you, when you come after me.”
Looking out, she saw it was early morning, and a light rain was falling on the fallow fields which were visible from the window. Being unfamiliar with English geography, she had no idea where Epping Forest was, but it seemed suitably obscure, if they were in retreat.
He raised the casement and swung a leg over, then hung onto the sill whilst he lowered himself down to leap the remainder of the way to the ground. Artemis determinedly followed suit, only to discover that the fall into Droughm’s arms was too much for the tenuous state of her stomach. Retching miserably, she was sick alongside the wall whilst her companion patted her back in sympathy and muttered, “Quickly, if you please.”
“Sorry,” she gasped, and straightened up, embarrassed by this show of weakness.
Taking a glance in either direction, he tucked her under his arm and began walking. It appeared their object was a dirt track that edged the field, alongside a boundary hedge.
“If you need to stop, let me know,” he said after they reached the track. “We have some cover, here.”
“I feel much better.” It was true—if only her head didn’t ache so—but at least her stomach seemed to have settled; there was little left in it, after all. She did rather hope they wouldn’t be walking for very long.
He seemed disinclined to speak, and she was concentrating on keeping up, so they crunched along the track in silence for a hundred yards. “Are we trying to avoid paying the shot?” she finally asked, panting.
Stopping abruptly, he drew her into his arms to squeeze her, which she didn’t think was the best idea, given recent events, but made no protest. “Forgive me, sweetheart—I am distracted.”
This was true; she gauged that he was on a low simmer, almost a’boil. If it had been the Colonel, he would have practiced sword-fighting for an hour and then felt much better, but she didn’t know Pen as well—not yet, at least—so she simply said, “I don’t mind; pray don’t feel you must coddle me.”
He released her and they continued on at a slightly slower pace. “You will be coddled, and you will like it. I will not be gainsaid on this.”
As this seemed an opportune time, she ventured, “I may need to rest—just for a minute.”
He glanced down at her with concern. “We are almost there—shall I carry you on my back?”
“No—no, if it’s not much longer—” She looked ahead, and decided that their destination must be a farming shed, up ahead. Perhaps he hoped to steal a horse.
As they approached, the shed door opened slightly on its own. With some alarm, Artemis drew back, but Droughm urged her forward. “No—it’s safe; go in.”
Slipping inside, Artemis came face-to-face with Lady Tallyer, waiting at the door.
Whilst Artemis blinked in astonishment, Droughm asked, “Anything?”
“No—quiet,” the lady replied.
Artemis felt a rush of annoyance—mixed with jealousy—that Lady Tallyer was apparently involved in Droughm’s mysterious work, and so she said with a touch of pique, “We are only missing the Investigator to make this reunion complete.”
Neither of them acknowledged her remark, and Lady Tallyer informed Droughm, “I made coffee.”
“Whiskey may be helpful. Do you have any?”
At her denial, he asked, “Does Tremaine?”
“I’ve no idea—he’s on watch.”
Artemis did not appreciate being treated like a child listening to the adults, but she firmly bit back any other sarcastic remarks, because it would only make her appear petty and young, and she half-suspected the lady was hoping for just such a reaction.
Droughm took her arm, and saw her seated on a bale of hay. “Can you attempt some coffee, Artemis? Your cook thinks it will help clear out the opiate.”
But the smell of the coffee was not at all appetizing, and Artemis dreaded the idea of being sick in front of Lady Tallyer, who was—naturally—very attractive in a black riding habit. “I am thirsty,” she admitted. “But I don’t know about the coffee.”
“Try a sip,” Droughm suggested, crouching before her. “If you can’t, you can’t.” He looked over to his companion, who poured a cup and brought it to Artemis.
Tentatively, Artemis held the warm tin of coffee between her hands for a moment, gathering the courage to take a sip.
Lady Tallyer said quietly, “Please reconsider, Pen. They will be expecting just this.”
In a curt tone, Droughm replied, “I’ll not leave her again. I was a fool to leave her vulnerable in the first place.”
“Not your fault,” Artemis offered, turning the cup around in her hands. “I should never have parlayed with Torville; thank God Cook is a suspicious soul.” She took a tentative sip, the aroma alone making her stomach heave.
“Shall we step outside for a moment?” the lady asked Droughm with some significance.
“No,” he replied.
Despite her misery, Artemis found she was rather enjoying herself—she hadn’t known him long, but even Artemis knew you couldn’t talk Droughm out of something he’d determined upon. With a furtive gesture, she set the coffee cup aside.
Not so furtive, after all. “Can’t do it?” he asked with sympathy, the green eyes worried.
“I just feel as though I’ve been turned inside-out, Pen.” She was careful to use his name, because Lady Tallyer had done so. “Let me give it a few minutes.”
“I’ll go fetch some whiskey from Tremaine—we need to prepare you for travel.” Droughm slipped out the door, and the two women were left alone in the shed.
“My head hurts,” said Artemis crossly. “And I am past making conversation.”
Lady Tallyer made an impatient sound. “Then don’t talk, if you’d prefer, but I should try to pin up your hair. We’re to switch clothes, and I’ve brought your horse.”
This was of interest, and Artemis looked up. “Callisto is here?”
“She’s in the stall. And you should be kinder to me; I’m to sacrifice my best riding habit for you.”
Artemis managed to muster up a smile. “I do thank you, then. Where will I be wearing your best habit?”
“Scotland,” the other replied in an even tone, her face expressionless.
An elopement, then. Artemis couldn’t help but think how she would feel, if she were in the other’s position, and offered, “I am sorry.”
The lady arched a brow. “Don’t be; I will hold out hope that Pen will come to his senses long before you reach the border.”
Artemis found she appreciated the other’s honesty and countered, “And I will hold out hope he does no such thing.”
With a nod, Lady Tallyer produced a hairbrush. “Then we shall see who has the right of it.”
Droughm returned after Artemis’ hair had been braided and pinned atop her head, and he produced a flask. “Drink,” he commanded, and she took a healthy swallow, waiting whilst she felt the liquor burn; one wasn’t a camp follower for seventeen years without having tasted whiskey.
“You’ll need to give Katy’s dress to Carena,” he instructed. “She’ll wear a wig, and pose as you in the carriage we came in.”
“A feint,” Artemis declared in appreciation. “It should work—as long as no one comes too close.” As she was feeling more charitable toward the other woman, she refrained from mentioning that close proximity would make the age difference all too apparent.
Droughm brought forth Trajan, and cinched his saddle. “We should leave within the hour. There is a market fair down the road, and we will want to use the distraction of the crowd.”
The whiskey had indeed helped Artemis’ headache subside, and she retreated into the stall to switch clothes with Lady Tallyer, and to don a riding bonnet that obscured her face. Then Callisto was led out, and the few things they would carry were efficiently tucked into the saddlebags. It is like being on the Peninsula again, thought Artemis as she checked the knots, only with a different sort of enemy, this time.
“May I speak with you privately for a moment?” asked Lady Tallyer of Droughm.
“No,” he said shortly, and helped Artemis mount up.
“You cannot mean to ignore it,” she persisted. “Don’t be a fool, Pen.”
“Have done, Carena.” He said the words without rancor as he mounted his horse. “I may be many things, but I am not a fool.” Gesturing for her to open the door, the lady did so, and Artemis followed Droughm out into the field.